What the British Movement Can Learn from Greece

Each day, it seems, the possibility of a Greek default increases. On Wednesday, the Rating Agency Fitch has downgraded the country’s credit rating again. The current bailout package will only allow Greece to pay it’s bills for another two months before further money will be needed.[1] Capital is rapidly fleeing the country – the Swiss are apparently running out of deposit boxes – and, amidst a brutal crackdown on protestors, and the government has threatened ‘tanks protecting banks’ should Greece leave the Euro.

Of course, the rhetoric of crisis makes all of this appear somewhat inevitable. However, as David Malone argues, this is as much about protecting French and German banks as it is about protecting the Eurozone.[2]  As David Harvey suggests, Greece may be being turned into an example for those who do not pay their debts. As some have also argued that the ‘crisis’ will present an opportunity for brutal neoliberal restructuring. If you’ve read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” (and you should) this will all seem quite familiar.

“Revolt and Crisis in Greece” is an Occupied London project – published by AK Press – that sheds some light on the political situation in Greece after the widely reported events of December 2008. Throughout, the book deals with two themes worth discussing here. The first concerns the nature of debt itself and the second is the Greek movement, which can productively contrasted in the UK.

Let’s deal with debt first. Undoubtedly, there is a compelling leftist response to the sovereign debt crisis, which sees it as a socialization of the costs incurred due to the financial crisis that, in turn, inflicts austerity and benefits capital. As TPTG write:

“The political choice to deepen the “sovereign debt crisis” exhibits greater advantages for capital: the bogeyman of bankruptcy becomes a useful too for a new cycle of violent primitive accumulation, in a similar fashion to what had happened in the countries of the periphery in the previous decades.”[3]

True enough, but a broader reading of nature itself is given by David Graeber. Taking a long view (reaching back to 3500 BCE) Graeber sees debt as at the heart of contemporary capitalism.

Since 1971, he argues, our system has been dedicated to the protection of creditors above all else.  Today, via the IMF and other institutions, nothing has become more sacrosanct than the repayment of debt, even when the human cost is huge. This contradiction is nowhere starker than the in the most recent crisis, when even the most absurd and fraudulent bank loans were guaranteed by public institutions, but public debt appears to be set in stone. As Graeber writes:

“…banks, and any other corporations with a financial division, are allowed to basically make up money out of thin air through the manipulation of debt; ordinary citizens, who are obliged to backstop these effects with their tax money whenever the bubble bursts, are under no conditions allowed to do the same: their debts are sacred obligations, matters of elementary morality, and should never be allowed the privilege of rescue or default.”[4]

The crisis and moral bankruptcy of the current model, in Graebers view, points the way towards the development of something new. He also makes the point that debt, historically at least, has been one of the major motors of revolutionary change, writing:

“From the earliest times for which we have records, through the Middle Ages, and throughout the age of European colonial empires, whenever one finds people rising in rebellion one finds questions of debt first among the grievances. This seems to be true everywhere – or everywhere where interest-bearing debt had already been made illegal as a result of pressure from below. It is as true of the peasant revolts in Japan as of colonial rebellions in India or Mexico.”[5]

It’s this tension between creditors and debtors, and the primacy of the former, that characterizes the Greek crisis. There is a book to written on the overlap between this and the antagonism between the republic property and multitude – those whose labour creates wealth – which lies at the heart of Hardt and Negri’s Commonwealth.

Here, the gridlock in Brussels, with European Central Bank seeking to avoid any default or ‘credit event’ in the face of the increasing desperation of European leaders (France has proposed rolling the debt over) is extremely interesting.

A nice detail comes from Greek history. As Michael Hardt writes, towards the end of Foucault’s teaching career he came to study the story of Diogenes, the philosopher hero of the Greek Cynics, who was advised by the Oracle of Delphi to ‘falsify the currency’.[6] Against the sloganistic reading, Hardt maintains that Foucault saw this as requiring a fundamental change to oneself (nomisma, the Greek word for currency, is strongly related to nomos, the law, after all) and a transvaluation of values. While I would certainly endorse this reading, I wonder if we might also have it both ways, combining the more vulgar reading with the further refined, and deploying both. As the pressure to ‘balance the books’ and so on continue to mount, we need to start thinking critically about the nature of debt itself.

And with this in mind, we can consider the second issue. While there are many obvious distinctions between the Greek and British ‘social movements’, it’s the critique, not the violence, that’s interesting. While the Greek movement has undergone some upsets, most recently due to brutal police repression at the end of June, in the December movement we find something very distinct from what we have in the UK. Consider one commentator’s description:

“…what was surprising was that the consequent December insurrection generalized to an attack the totality of the symbolic order of capitalism itself, reaching its height in the torching of Europe’s largest Christmas tree…even those outside the anarchist milieu also simultaneously aimed for the transformation of everyday life while assaulting capital in acts of pure negation. In this way, the insurrection is a rupture with the previous forms of protest that emerged over the last ten years even in Greece…”[7]

This generalizing of the struggle Trocchi describes, moving it beyond the categories provided by the initial spark – in the case of December 2008, the tragic murder by police of Alexis Grigoropoulus – and into a struggle against everything was what made December so important.

This is reflected by many writers who describe the revolt as an ‘event’ in the terms laid out by Alain Badiou. To greatly simplify matters, Badiou’s argues that, before we can become politically committed, we must be witness to an ‘event’: an occurrence which becomes our frame of reference and within which all other subsequent matters, within the community of those loyal to the event, are judged. In this sense, December “changed things”:

“It was revealed, thus, that there was no life after December, because it was our own life that brought about December. People all over the country started realizing that, however different their anxieties might be, their problem is common – the unequal way in which structures have been erected around them – and thus can no longer be tackled through the usual form of politics.”[8]

As another commentator writes:

“What is important in this respect is the ultimate attack on authoritative discourses, power relations, systems of discipline and punishment, and imposed schemes of perceptions. The state, authorities, the prevalent system of law and order were immediately identified with the normality in the city. Therefore, the disruption of normality had the qualities of challenging all the above altogether.”[9]

How representative these views are is hard to say. While I can’t offer an exhaustive analysis of the UK student and related movements, however, my own experiences suggest that our own critiques tend to remain a little confined.  Against the march of economic ‘rationality’, many within the  protest movements are becoming well versed in economics and, to all intents and purposes, agitating for a ‘return to normal’. This was confirmed for me in the UK part of ‘Springtime: the Rebirth of the Student Movement’ a reader recently published by Verso.

Two things characterize the texts in Springtime. The first is an emphasis on the past, reflected in the constant referencing of May ’68 (“The memory of ’68, its dissent and protest, had been indelibly etched into our psyches. In other words, although the ends were different, the means remained the same.”[10]). This compares poorly with the Greek slogans of recent years, which insist on the contemporary. Good examples are: ‘We are an image from the future’ and, my favourite, ‘Fuck May 68 – Fight Now’.

The second characteristic is the rational approach to the crisis in a way eerily reminiscent of sorts parts of the climate change movement. So we have constant references to the cuts being avoidable (if only the rich would pay up!) and economic sense of investing in education (we can help capitalism prosper too!).  This is all completely understandable, but suffers from an implicit acceptance of the terms of the debate. At worst, it suggests that the system is simply working badly, under a confused administration. While it’s laudable that so many advocate bringing down the coalition, I would still argue that the Greek situation is distinct in offering a more thorough, personalized and expansive critique. Consider, for example an account of the December insurrection from ‘The Potentiality of Storming Heaven”:

“Let’s take revenge not only for Alexis death, but for thousands of hours stolen from us at work; for thousands of moments we’ve felt humiliated in the boss’s office; for the thousands of times we’ve swallowed our anger, against a cool fucking customer! for our dreams that have become advertisements; for our ideas that have become government lines and votes; for our constantly worsening life; for ourselves whom we witness slowly becoming shadows in a repeating everyday life… We proceed altogether, for all reasons! Because we deny our becoming shadows. Because we are angry! Because we want to change everything!”

It is my contention that the difference is not about style but substantive, and crucial. What’s remarkable is that the above sentiment probably chimes with what many people in the UK feel despite the fact that we convince ourselves, again and again, to adopt specialist discourse (i.e. taking about economic recovery) and to remain within the confines of ‘common sense’. By contrast, December 2008 introduced within the Greek movement a moment in which everything could suddenly be questioned and, crucially, negated. It was a revolt against a wasted life.

However well organized our movement is, I think that unless the critiques of the UK movement can generalize to envelop the whole of the social fabric and abandon specific groups and single issues, it will remain limited. And this is where debt comes back in. The notion that our lives should be wasted (our belts ‘tightened’) in the paying down of debt, as if this repayment towards multinational institutions was a sort of categorical imperative, is an outrageous one. This is all the more so in a context where the money was ‘lent into existence’ by banks with high leverage, where those banks were bailed out by the taxpayer, and where the debt has been accumulated without our consent. It is against debt, this odious negation of human existence, that we can begin to think about what an political/economic system that served human interests would truly be.

This isn’t an attack on the UK movement, and I hope it doesn’t sound like one. Amazing things are happening and there is huge potential for things to move forward. The Greek December 2008, however, provides one example of what ‘forward’ might mean.

[2] See here for an interesting critique of the Eurozone project: http://www.zcommunications.org/why-the-euro-is-not-worth-saving-by-mark-weisbrot

[3] From Burdened with Debt: “Debt Crisis” and Class Struggle in Greece, TPTG, in “Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come” (2011) ed. Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou, Occupied London and AK Press, pp. 252

[4] Graeber, David, in The Greek Debt Crisis in Almost Unimaginably Long-Term Historical Perspective in ibid. pp. 239

[5] ibid. 232-3

[6] Hardt, Michael Militant Life New Left Review No. 64 (2009) pp. 158

[7] Trocchi, Alex For the Insurrection to Succeed, We Must First Destroy Ourselves in ibid. n. 3 pp. 307

[8] Houki, Hara Short Voyage to the Land of Ourselves in ibid. n. 3 pp. 175

[9] Kallianos, Yannis December as an Event in Greek Radical Politics ibid. n. 3 pp. 155

[10] Springtime: The Rebirth of the Student Movement (2011) (ed. Clare Soloman, etc, pp. 27

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