Capitulating to adults

During the pandemic lockdown, I have been able to read a range of new economics books, some Marxist but most not.  It seems that many leading economists have published new stuff in the last two months. Over the next few weeks, I shall post some reviews of these.

I shall start with Sellouts in the Room by Eric Toussaint. Originally published in French and in Greek in March 2020 under the title Capitulation entre Adultes, the book will be available in English before the end of 2020.  Eric Toussaint takes us back to events of Greek debt crisis when the Troika (the EU Commission, the ECB and the IMF) tried to impose a drastic austerity programme on the Greek people in return for ‘bailout’ funds to cover existing debts owed by Greek banks and the Greek government to foreign creditors, as credit for Greece in markets dried up and the government headed for default.

At the beginning of 2015, the Greek people elected the left-wing Syriza party to power. Syriza pledged to resist austerity measures. The new prime minister Tsipras appointed the already well-known leftist economist Yanis Varoufakis as finance minister to negotiate a deal with the Troika.  As we subsequently know, Varoufakis was unable to persuade the Troika and EU leaders to drop the austerity demands. Tsipras called a referendum for the Greek people on whether to accept the Troika demands.  Despite a massive media campaign by the capitalist press and dire threats from the Troika and the strangling of the Greek economy and banks by the ECB, the Greek people voted 60% to reject the Troika plan.  But immediately after the vote, Tsipras caved into the Troika and agreed to their demands.

Varoufakis resigned as finance minister and later he wrote an account of his negotiations with the Troika, called Adults in the Room. Éric Toussaint was also in Greece at the time.  He was coordinating the work of a debt audit committee set up by the president of the Hellenic Parliament in 2015 to look at the nature of the debt that the Greeks owed to the likes of European banks, hedge funds and other governments. He “lived nearly three months in Athens between February and July 2015, and in the context of my work as scientific coordinator of the audit of Greece’s debt, I was in direct contact with a number of members of the Tsipras government.”  Toussaint has now written an alternative view of those events from that recounted by Varoufakis.  And it amounts to a devastating critique of the Syriza government and of Varoufakis’ strategy and tactics during 2015.

Does it matter what happened? Toussaint reckons it does because there are important lessons to be learned from the Greek debt crisis. The common view now is that Syriza had no alternative but to submit to the Troika as otherwise the Greek banks would have collapsed, the economy would have fallen down an abyss and Greece would have been thrown out of the European Union to fend for itself.  For example, Paul Mason, British leftist broadcaster and writer, wrote in 2017 that “I continue to believe Tsipras was right to climb down in the face of the EU’s ultimatum, and that Varoufakis was at fault for the way he designed the “game” strategy.”

Toussaint’s denies the narrative of TINA (‘there is no alternative’), arguing that there was an alternative strategy that Syriza could have followed and, in particular, Toussaint singles out Varoufakis for failing to recognise or adopt this in his role as finance minister.  In Toussaint’s view, Varoufakis started from the premiss that he had to persuade the Troika to act as “adults” and aim to convince them to reach a reasonable compromise.  From the very beginning Varoufakis made extremely minimal counter-proposals to the Troika austerity measures: “Varoufakis reassured his opposite numbers that the Greek government would not request a reduction of the debt stock, and he never called into question the legitimacy or legality of the debt whose repayment was demanded of Greece.” He never asserted the right and the determination of the Greek government to conduct an audit of Greece’s debts, says Toussaint.

And Varoufakis not only said that the government he represented would not call into question the privatizations that had been conducted since 2010, but even allowed for the possibility of further privatizations.  Indeed, Varoufakis repeatedly told the European leaders that 70 per cent of the measures called for by the Troika’s Memorandum of Understanding were acceptable.  While Varoufakis discussed with these ‘adults in a room’, the Syriza government continued to pay off several billion euros in debts between February and 30 June 2015, while the Troika did not make a single euro available. The public coffers continued to be emptied, principally for the benefit of the IMF.

Varoufakis and the inner circle around Tsipras, in reaching an agreement with the Troika in late February 2015 to extend the second Memorandum of Understanding, never showed evidence of the slightest determination to take action if the creditors refused to make concessions. And the latter gave every evidence of contempt for Greece’s government.

Most important, says Toussaint, the Syriza government ministers did not take the time to go out and meet the Greek people, to speak at rallies where the Greek population was represented. They did not travel around the country to meet and talk with voters and explain what was going on during the negotiations or the measures the government wanted to take to fight the humanitarian crisis and re-start the country’s economy. They utterly failed to appeal to the working people of Europe and elsewhere for support. Instead, Varoufakis and the other Greek ministers involved to conduct ‘secret diplomacy’ in rooms, thus encouraging the Troika to “persist in using the worst forms of blackmail.”

The referendum of 5 July 2015 was the culmination of those negotiations. Clearly, Tsipras expected the Greek people to bow to the pressure of the media and the threat of economic disaster and expulsion from the EU by accepting the Troika demands. But they did not. Toussaint says that the referendum results was a perfect opportunity to mobilise the Greek people to reject the Troika’s blackmail, refuse their ultimatums and instead respond by suspending further repayments of debt pending an audit. The government should have announced the nationalisation of the banks and implemented capital controls to stop capital flight and take control of the payments system.

As Toussaint points out: “When a coalition or a party of the Left takes over government, it does not take over the real power. Economic power (which comes from ownership of and control over financial and industrial groups, the mainstream private media, mass retailing, etc.) remains in the hands of the capitalist class, the richest 1 per cent of the population. That capitalist class controls the state, the courts and the police, the ministries of the economy and finance, the central bank, the major decision-making bodies.”

That was ignored or denied by the Syriza governemnt, including its rockstar finance minister. They started from the premiss that representatives of capital in the Troika could be persuaded to be reasonable, to act as adults.  The class nature of the struggle was omitted.  As Toussaint says: “In reality, a major strategic choice of the Syriza government–one which led to its downfall–was constantly to avoid confrontation with the Greek capitalist class. It was not simply that Syriza and the government did not seek popular mobilization against the Greek bourgeoisie, who widely adhered to the EU’s neoliberal policies. The government openly pursued policies of conciliation with them.”

Toussaint offers an alternative strategy in his book.  The Syriza government “should have resolutely followed the path of disregarding the European treaties and refusing to submit to the dictates of the creditors. At the same time they should have taken the offensive against the Greek capitalists, making them pay taxes and fines, especially in the sectors of shipping, finance, the media and mass retail. It was also important to make the Orthodox Church, the country’s main land owner, pay taxes. As a means of reinforcing these policies, the government should have encouraged the development of self-organization processes in existing collective projects in various domains (for example, self-managed health dispensaries to deal with the social and humanitarian crisis or associations working to feed the most vulnerable people.”

That brings us to the issue of Greece’s membership of the European Union.  Up to the point of the referendum, apart from the Communist party, no party stood for leaving the EU as a solution to the crisis. The vast majority of Greeks did not want this. After the capitulation of Syriza, the party leadership split and those opposed to the capitulation (with the exception of Varoufakis) called for Grexit as the main policy proposal and solution. In the subsequent election, these factions failed to make any headway into parliament and the Tsipras government was returned intact.

In his book, Toussaint reckons that the Syriza government should have opted for triggering Article 50 in the EU constitution as a way of getting out of the EU. This Article is what the UK government subsequently used to achieve its exit after its referendum to leave in 2016.  Toussaint reckons that using this instrument would have given Greece two years to argue the toss with the EU, while it refused to pay any more debt etc. I am not so sure that this would have been a good tactic. As Toussaint points out, no EU member state can be thrown out and there are few sanctions that the EU could impose on a Greek government anyway, apart from the ECB blocking credit, something they were doing anyway. By applying for Article 51, Syriza would have been telling the Greek people that the government aimed to leave the EU voluntarily (something the majority of Greek did not want); and also giving the EU leaders an easy way out of getting rid of Greece, something that, as Varoufakis points out in his narrative, German finance minister Schauble was keen on doing.

In my posts during the Greek crisis, I argued that the Syriza government should have refused to pay the debt; taken over the banks and large Greek companies, mobilised the people to occupy the workplaces and introduce workers control; blocked the movement of funds by the rich and corporates; and appealed to the labour movement in Europe for support against the policies of their governments.  Let those governments try to throw Greece out; but do not give them constitutional weapon to do so.

The main emphasis in Toussaint’s book is on the role of Varoufakis, not because of any personal animosity, but because this ‘erratic Marxist’, as Varoufakis calls himself, was at the centre of events and went on to write his best-selling personal account of what happened. Varoufakis then formed a pan-European wide political party DIEM 25, and was eventually re-elected as an MP in the Greek parliament in the recent 2019 election that led to the Conservative party taking back power.

Why did Varoufakis from the beginning as finance minister adopt the strategy of trying to persuade the Troika leaders to be reasonable, rather than mobilise the Greek people for a fight against the Troika demands? The answer, I think, lies in Varuofakis’ view of the possibilities for socialism. Before he was appointed finance minister by Tsipras, he had not been a member of Syriza; he had been an academic. Back then, he wrote, “You see, it is not an environment for radical socialist policies after all. Instead it is the Left’s historical duty, at this particular juncture, to stabilise capitalism; to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the Eurozone’s inevitable crisis”.  He had written what was called a Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis with Social Democrat academic Stuart Holland and his close colleague and friend, post-Keynesian James Galbraith, in which Varoufakis was proud to say “does not have a whiff of Marxism in it.”

This ‘erratic Marxist’ saw his task as Greek finance minister “to save European capitalism from itself” so as to “minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis; the countless lives whose prospects will be further crushed without any benefit whatsoever for the future generations of Europeans.” Apparently, for Varoufakis, socialism cannot do this because “we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapsing European capitalism will open up with a functioning socialist system”.  By ‘we’, he means working people, but in practice he meant himself.

Varoufakis went further. You see, “a Marxist analysis of both European capitalism and of the Left’s current condition compels us to work towards a broad coalition, even with right-wingers, the purpose of which ought to be the resolution of the Eurozone crisis and the stabilisation of the European Union… Ironically, those of us who loathe the Eurozone have a moral obligation to save it!”  Thus he campaigned for his Modest Proposal for Europe with “the likes of Bloomberg and New York Times journalists, of Tory members of Parliament, of financiers who are concerned with Europe’s parlous state.”

In Sellouts in the Room, Eric Toussaint scathingly exposes this wrong-headed approach of the ‘erratic Marxist’. It’s a painful read in many ways, as Toussaint chapter by chapter recounts Varoufakis’ sorry progress, or lack of it. In a recent interview, Varoufakis was asked “what would I have done differently with the information I had at the time? I think I should have been far less conciliatory to the Troika. I should have been far tougher. I should not have sought an interim agreement. I should have given them an ultimatum: “a restructure of debt, or we are out of the euro today”.

Unfortunately, there is never much benefit in hindsight, except to to avoid the same mistakes when another opportunity arises. Toussaint’s book is a guide to that. In the meantime, the Greek people now face yet another round of austerity and depression after the coronavirus crisis, following the terrible years before and after the capitulation of 2015. The IMF forecast for 2020 would take Greek national income back to the level of 25 years ago!

21 Responses to “Capitulating to adults”

  1. Martin Gottlieb Says:

    Professor Roberts –

    You wrote:

    “In my posts during the Greek crisis , I argued that the Syriza government should have refused to pay the debt; taken over the banks and large Greek companies, mobilised the people to occupy the workplaces and *introduce workers control*.”

    Could you please say a few words as to what you think workers control would look like. It’s an idea that people on the left sometimes cite, but there’s not much practical experience. Does it have any resemblance to the inner workings of a worker co-op?

    Thanks.

    Martin Gottlieb

    On Sun, May 31, 2020 at 6:26 AM Michael Roberts Blog wrote:

    > michael roberts posted: “During the pandemic lockdown, I have been able to > read a range of new economics books, some Marxist but most not. It seems > that many leading economists have published new stuff in the last two > months. Over the next few weeks, I shall post some reviews of” >

    • michael roberts Says:

      Martin – a big subject in a few words. At the top we need workers democracy ie that the plan for an economy (investment, production, trade etc) is democratically decided on by workers bodies (councils) not by a central government bureaucracy. At a local level, enterprises should be controlled by the workers in them – appointing managers by democratic decisions. While workers cooperatives, namely small businesses merging to form coops on prices and investment, could also exist, such coops would never survive for long within a capitalist system. Workers coops would only develop within a planned economy where there are no profit-making monopolies controlling resources and markets. A planned economy, democratically run, would in contrast be able to ensure the development of locally based coops.

      • ucanbpolitical Says:

        There is a big problem. If workers are segregated into co-ops they can’t collectively own the means of production, they will be divided by differential intensities, there can be no pricing system to overcome productivities because of unequal access to means of production. Please forget co-ops, they lead in only one direction, back to capitalism. Please read my 21st century programme to see why on theplanningmotive.com

  2. jesus Says:

    I was born an lived in greece for 23 years, and your articles on the matter are among the few (if the only) with a deep understanding of the greek political reality.

    A question: The international environment was very complicated (the war in Ukraine was happening at that moment, in Syria too, and the position of Turkey with respect to NATO and Russia was not clear at the moment of the referendum). My understanding is that what ended the negotiations was pressure from the US to not risk any destabilization of the region, to which Tsipras totally capitulated, and which resulted in the EU and IMF making only symbolic concessions.

    This is, of course on top of all the failures of Syriza to understand that, as you and as the Greek CP said, the government does not control the country.

    Your thoughts on that?

    • michael roberts Says:

      Jesus – I dont know about that geopolitical pressure from the US. But clearly, the EU could not afford to have a dangerous ‘socialist’ state within its borders, opposing NATO etc if the Western alliance was to remain.

      • jesus Says:

        this is an article from the greek right-wing newspaper “Kathimerini”, which represents the greek naval capital and establishment:

        https://www.kathimerini.gr/823273/article/epikairothta/politikh/pieseis-oyasigkton-gia-e3eyresh-lyshs

        hope that google translate gets the point across.

        I clearly remember Biden calling Merkel, Lagarde and Tsipras late at night, when the Eurogroup of July 11th was in a deadlock.

        Germany was insisting, e.g, that the fund that was to curry out the privatization of national property be based in Luxemburg (!!). Their strategy was clearly to put forward terms that the Greek government could never accept, in order to find an excuse for kicking Greece out of the Eurozone. In the late hours Biden called all sides and Germany made unimportant concessions (e.g. the fund was finally based in Greece) but in all other respects the Greek government just capitulated.

        Looking these things things up on google is difficult, and many of the original newspaper articles have disappeared since, but, as you say, a “socialist” state, or even one that could jump ship at any moment and turn to Russia for military and economic support could not be tolerated.

  3. Anti-Capital Says:

    I’m pretty sure you won’t post this, but nowhere in your earlier article linked to this one do you call for cancellation or renunciation of the debt.

    And if memory serves me, nowhere in any previous posting on Greece did you call for cancelling the debt.

  4. ralphiesmom Says:

    Varafoukis seemed like an arrogant egotist during the negotiations. As an independent Marxist, I was disappointed at the time in the way he handled the negotiations. Then he appeared with his partner in a Paris Match layout while the people of Greece were suffering under austerity and worse. What a fake!

  5. Mrs. Debra L. Carr de Legorreta Says:

    Few things are worse or more dangerous than a modern politician engaging in economics. Steeped in their narrow perspective modern politicians engage in economic affairs they know nothing about and they end up deferring to those who do, but for the wrong reasons.

    Varoufakis-2015 is what happens when the opposite takes place, an economist engaging in politics. The results are just as horrific.

    Huge mistakes to divorce economics from its social context and to divorce politics from its economic dimension. Political-economics is a single discipline, not the overlap of two different endeavors. Practitioners need to be steeped in all aspects of this singular discipline.

  6. Seanán Kerr Says:

    Regarding the option of a far harsher clampdown on on tax avoidance and the capitalist/1% class, I wonder to what degree the nature of the army in Greece and the police force, the former being the biggest army in the EU (413,000 personnel, next largest being France with around 388,000 and nearly 7 X the population), riddled with the far right, that had such policies been enacted there was no guarantee the army or police would execute them?

    It was rarely mentioned if at all during 2015 as an issue, though Varoufakis fired off numerous blog posts warning of the danger of Golden Dawn and the serpents egg prior to 2015.

  7. Henry Rech Says:

    Varoufakis is reported as saying:

    ” I should have given them an ultimatum: a restructure of debt, or we are out of the euro today.”

    A little hollow sounding given Schauble offered Varoufakis a negotiated and supported exit from the EZ while being permitted to remain in the EU. The Europeans did not want Greece out of the EU for a host of reasons.

    The problem was that the Greek people, in referendum, voted to reject the Troika’s offer but wanted to remain within the EU and the EZ.

    They wanted to have their cake as well as eat it too.

    Syriza, given the attitude of the vast majority of Greeks, could not accept Schauble’s offer even though leaving the EZ would have been Greece’s optimal strategy (while remaining in the EU), giving them back control of their currency and economy.

  8. jschulman Says:

    Barry Finger of New Politics was talking about what Syriza should do back in summer 2015, and it’s still the best article of that sort I’ve ever read:

    https://newpol.org/issue_post/what-next-greek-crisis/

  9. Michael Ballard Says:

    Until “the Greek people” are class conscious enough to know that they deserve to collectively own and democratically manage they wealth they socially produce, the ruling capitalist classes of Europe and Greece will ride roughshod over them. And guess what– that isn’t going to occur, if they think people like Varoufakis can lead them out of their misery.

  10. Michael D Yates Says:

    People in Greece were starving, the economy collapsed, and Varoufakis and his wife posed for Paris Match from their luxury digs.

    “Varoufakis was pictured by Paris Match at a piano in his living room, and dining with his wife in style on the roof terrace of his “love nest at the foot of the Acropolis”, while telling the magazine how he abhorred the ‘star system.’” (Guardian, March 15, 2015

    As with his regrets vis the Troika, he later said he regretted the photo.

    He is supposedly an expert in game theory. Unfortunately, he was well above his pay grade as Finance Minister and was eaten alive by the Troika.

  11. saigon Says:

    I am greek and I lived through all this up until 2017. Varoufakis is considered an opportunist by all non-syriza leftists in Greece. I say this because I see he is highly regarded by most “western” leftists. I guess that says more about the state of “western left”. Some things that should also be considered are the following:

    1) The greek bourgeoisie are thoroughly corrupt and relentless. They completely STAGED events to further facilitate european pressure. More specifically, it is the private media that at the height of the negotiations started showing lines of people waiting to withdraw their money from ATMs, staging interviews with “concerned pro-EU” citizens. I remember multiple times seeing the same people being “interviewed” at different places.

    2) Since 2011 the mainstream “respectable” media started -without shame- promoting the Golden Dawn as “patriots” who help old ladies cross the street etc. At one point the neonazis reached a solid 14%. This was the time when 24 and 48 hour general strikes were frequent, with 100-200k people demonstrating.

    3) Greece has a good portion of people being on the Left, but the Left is highly fragmented and the infighting is severe, especially between the communist party (which garners a steady 5-6%) and the rest. Syriza went from a party of 2-3% to winning elections, yet in demonstrations it couldn’t muster even 5000 people. The communist party(KKE) could casually march with 70000(seventy thousand) well organized working class people. I say this because any coalition of the Left including the KKE would probably have triggered alarm in the US command.

    4) Given 3), geopolitical issues have to also be included. Even as we speak there are daily violations of greek (air)space from Turkey and illegal drilling in greek (“disputed”) waters. Given what happened with cyprus back then, it is not unlikely that Turkey might have been given the green light for “action”.

    5) Struggle for solidarity from european workers would have been, in my opinion, futile. At the time, I remember german news outlets spreading “polls” asking european citizens about which country is more “lazy”, more “trustworthy” etc. European workers were “mobilized” against greeks effectively and I don’t see how greece could overturn this.

  12. Alp Says:

    What actions would ‘The government should have announced the nationalisation of the banks and implemented capital controls to stop capital flight and take control of the payments system’ have entailed? For example, I assume a nationalisation of the banks to help the Greek people would have required large personnel changes instead of the usual purchasing of a stake and passing of some regulation. And how do you implement capital controls and take over the payments system (e.g. what buildings and computers do you physically need to be in control of)?

  13. Pat Byrne Says:

    Toussaint’s Criticisms are Misplaced.

    Actually, the root of Syriza’s problems came three years before it was elected in 2015. After the 2012 election when Syriza narrowly missed being the largest party and getting the 50 seat bonus in parliament, it became obvious that the Party would win the next election, especially as the other three main parties entered a grand austerity coalition committed to cutting living standards on a major scale. This gave Syriza an unusual opportunity for a radical left party.
    It had the chance and the duty to take its radical 2012 Manifesto and expand it into a serious programme for transforming Greece. With a likely electoral success ahead, the Party had the credibility with which to organise conferences for the main sectors of the Greek economy such as agriculture, energy, tourism, shipping etc. Such conferences to bring together trade unions, small producers, customers, radical economists and so on in order to assess sectoral problems and develop radical programmes to address them. Such programmes would no longer be just proposals from Syriza but genuine people’s programmes developed with the active participation of millions of Greeks.
    Just take energy as an example. Greece has a major energy deficit. Apart from some coal reserves it has to import almost all of its power. Yet, the country is rich in renewables: solar, wind and wave. Plans for a green energy programme in Greece would have had massive both within Greece and throughout Europe.
    Above all, Greece desperately needed a viable and radical plan for the finance sector. It was a tragedy that the Truth Committee on Public Debt and which the author Toussaint was so involved in, was launched in April 2015 rather than two years earlier, Such a process would have identified those many punitive loans that had been arranged in a corrupt way and which could be written off by a Syriza government; and those genuine loans that needed to be renegotiated and paid off at a later date when the Greek economy could afford it. Such a plan for tackling its debt would have greatly helped in Syriza’s election campaign in 2015 and in its appeal for international support thereafter.
    A conference process on the finance sector would also had to face up to the threat of the inevitable outflow of funds from Greece as companies and the wealthy tried to shift their money to other locations. As Michael Roberts correctly argues, such a financial programme would have had to include the immediately freezing of bank accounts above a certain level, and taking the banks into democratic public ownership if Greece was to have any hope of providing finance for public investment and to turn its economy around.
    Instead of taking this path in the three years before 2015 and seriously preparing for power, the Syriza leadership took the opposite course. First Tsipras, the Syriza leader, invested considerable efforts in trying to tame his left wing through disciplinary action. Then he mounted a drive to water down the radical manifesto of 2012 that had propelled Syriza into popularity. He succeeded in doing so with the Thessaloniki programme adopted four months before the 2015 election.
    Thus Syriza went into the election without any real programme or strategy to tackle its deep crisis beyond appealing to the Troika to give them a break. And with no plan B if and when they refused to do so.
    Last but not least, Syriza did not reach out to the European Left to organise for an alternative plan to austerity in the EU in the run up to its election. Clearly, Greece could not solve all of its problems on its own. It needed support and solidarity from Europe and serious organisation to achieve this. There were general appeals for support but this was nowhere near enough to cut across the reactionary propaganda and convince working people in Europe that much of the loans to Greece were fraudulent and that Syriza had a viable plan for solving its economic problems. Instead, despite a lot of initial sympathy, the ruling classes of Europe were able to convince their citizens that writing off past loans or lending more to Greece would be simply pouring good money after bad.
    If you put the events of 2015 into this context, what Varoufakis did or not do, was of less importance. It was the approach of the Syriza leadership before the election that was at fault as they clearly demonstrated that they had no intention of using the crisis to take Greece down the democratic socialist road. Rather to stay within the framework of the system whatever that might bring. Varoufakis went along with this but baulked at the consequences when they couldn’t be avoided. Which I guess was a lot better than those like Tsipras, who betrayed their promises without remorse.
    The swift and dramatic failure of the Syriza government despite all of the hopes that its election aroused, demoralised not only the Greek left but the progressive movement around the world. But if we learn from what went wrong we at least have a chance of not repeating the same mistakes in the future.
    Pat Byrne

    • Pyramid of Control Says:

      Thanks for the comment Pat, yeah really disheartening stuff—wish Syriza could’ve found solidarity with other worker movements abroad.

  14. Gerrit Zeilemaker Says:

    There is a lot to learn for the left in your artikel. I have translated it in Dutch for ‘Ander Europa’ Here is the link: https://www.andereuropa.org/terugblik-op-griekenland-2015/

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