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An interview on Italy, Greece, the Left and Marxism – VOX POPULI

This is the English transcript of an interview that will appear in VOX POPULI ( translated in Italian VOX POPULI interview December 2019 You stood out in 2016 with the famous letter against SYRIZA, indicated as a subject falsely aimed at change. In particular, you accused SYRIZA of having negotiated with the EU, thus accepting the logic and structure of the Troika program. The conditions that were then emerging and which you lucidly predicted consisted in the analysis of the Rescue Plan for Greece, where the interests of two large economic blocks, the European and the American, were played out. In particular, if the first feared for a debt cut, being in favor of a renegotiation on the terms of expiry and on the interests, the second

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An interview on Italy, Greece, the Left and Marxism – VOX POPULI

This is the English transcript of an interview that will appear in VOX POPULI ( translated in Italian

VOX POPULI interview

December 2019

  1. You stood out in 2016 with the famous letter against SYRIZA, indicated as a subject falsely aimed at change. In particular, you accused SYRIZA of having negotiated with the EU, thus accepting the logic and structure of the Troika program. The conditions that were then emerging and which you lucidly predicted consisted in the analysis of the Rescue Plan for Greece, where the interests of two large economic blocks, the European and the American, were played out. In particular, if the first feared for a debt cut, being in favor of a renegotiation on the terms of expiry and on the interests, the second favored the net cut of the debt in order to guarantee itself a hegemonic economic and political block (exploiting the influence of global deleveraging and of the debt’s haircut on EU’s official interest rates). Always according to your letter, the constraint of the steel cage of austerity was the result of the mediation between these interests. To what degree does this strategic decision have influence today and how much can Greece call itself the contemporary field of mediation – and irresponsible speculation – between the interests of Europe in the fiscal compact and the neoliberalism of Maastricht and Lisbon and the new policy of the American power under the Trump doctrine?

The contemporary tragedy of Greece has two major and one minor instigators. The minor instigator is the Greek bourgeoisie. It entered the European imperialist integration project aspiring that this will elevate it within the pyramid of imperialism through its partnership with the more advanced Western European capitals. This ‘big idea’ backfired terribly as its odds were very demanding and the Greek capital could not face up to this challenge. The eruption of the 2008 global capitalist crisis (a falling profitability crisis) and the subsequent 2010 Greek debacle (which appeared as a fiscal crisis although it was caused by both Greek capital’s falling profitability and its imperialist exploitation by the more developed Western capitals) put an end to this ‘big idea’ and demoted the Greek capitalism within the international imperialist pyramid. Of course, the Greek people pays the cost for this failure.

However, Greek is a middle-level capitalism and also a sub-imperialist economy. The latter means that, although it is able to exploit economically less developed capitalisms in its neighboring areas (e.g. Balkans), it is subject to imperialist dominance by more developed capitalisms. In the post-war era two are the main imperialist dominators of Greece. The first one is the US which assumed this role from Britain in the midst of the Greek civil war. The second is the agglomeration of Western European capitals forming the basis of the EU; with the contradictions and conflicts that exist between them. When the European integration project was under the auspices of the EU (approximately till the 1980s), the US left the primacy in economic matters to the EU although it kept the overall geopolitical hegemony. When European capitals attempted to deepen their integration, expand and ultimately challenge the US hegemony the previously mentioned arrangement fell apart. The 2008 crisis intensified the imperialist rivalry between them. The Greek capitalist crisis became one of the grounds on which the US-EU tug-of-war (conflict cum compromise) takes place.

In the beginning of the crisis both hegemons agreed on the austerity policies of troika’s Economic Adjustment Programmes. The representatives of the two hegemons (the IMF for the US and the ECB and the EU for the Europeans) had equal leverage in troika’s decision-making. However, the economic risks were unequal as the European loans were greater and less secure than those of the IMF. Moreover, when the urgency of the initial phase of the crisis passed, different and opposing strategies emerged between the US and the EU. The former put on the table the issue of debt restructuring which the latter strived to avoid. Also, significant differences merged between the conditionalities and the policy proposals of the IMF and the European side. In a nutshell, Greece became one of the battle grounds of the US-EU rivalry. Slowly, the IMF started distancing itself from the Greek debacle. The Trump administration exacerbated US unilateralism and aggressiveness. This led today in the earlier repayment of IMF’s loans and the assumption by it of the role of the advisor. On the other hand, and ironically, although the Europeans bore the greater part of loans and risks, it was the US capital that made the bigger inroads in the Greek economy.

The Greek bourgeoisie tries to equilibrate between its two imperialist patrons. On the one hand, it is part of the EU and subject to its dictums; particularly given its down-graded status to that of an almost failed state. On the other hand, the US has a very strong economic position in Greece and also is the crucial geopolitical and military factor in the Greek – Turkish regional rivalry. Indicatively, the SYRIZA government tied itself unashamedly to the US but shied away from agreeing with the IMF’s demand for a debt haircut. So long as the US – EU rivalry increases – and the current global economic downturn increasingly points towards this – then the Greek bourgeoisie wil be in a terribly difficult position because it will have to choose side.

An interview on Italy, Greece, the Left and Marxism – VOX POPULI

  1. SYRIZA has demonstrated of not being able to cope with the European stakeholders since the first talks with the Rescue Plan Commission: during this period the ostracization of Varoufakis was the great question mark for European Marxism (obviously, not that Varoufakis was a Marxist thinker!). What has really happened? Why did Tsipras chase away the man who could give the appearance of being the professional of the party and an inflexible authority regarding European affairs? Was Varoufakis a victim of Tsipras, of Europe or of his possible inconclusiveness?

It never ceases to amaze me the interest that continues to exist in the Western Left about Varoufakis. It is either a matter of political and ideological disorientation and/or of misinformation. In Greece it is evident nowadays that he and his personal political fiefdom (the caricature of a political party called MERA 25) are not part of the Left. He is a terrible opportunist and maverick. In theory he is a lesser Keynesian. But he changes masks according to the audience he is addressing. He even said that he is an erratic Marxist (sic!) although he is too erratic and too conservative to be a Marxist. He has well-known ties to the US liberal establishment. As a Finance Minister he agreed with the 80% of troika’s programme. His negotiation tactics with the EU was an utter mess: simply political pose and personal showing off without any serious strategic direction. His party is a personal fiefdom representing middle and small bourgeoisie strata that are socially radical and politically conservative. It has collected other political wannabees and opportunists and have little in common apart from personal ambitions. It exists mainly through the social media and, of course, it has no foundation in mass movements.

He was enlisted in the SYRIZA team, when the latter was preparing to assume the government, almost out of the blue. The main reason that Tsipras personally imposed him upon the previous economic team was Varoufakis’ international backing from circles of the US liberal establishment. As a Finance Minister Varoufakis proved very self-centered and served badly both SYRIZA and his international backers. In toto, he did more for himself than he did for his partners and backers. For this reason, once SYRIZA realized that the US was using it in their tug-of-war with the EU and was not pushing seriously for a debt haircut, the use-value of Varoufakis was exhausted. Moreover, his flamboyant posing made him a suitable sacrifice for the necessary capitulation to the troika. Varoufakis attempted to accommodate himself in the new situation – he even voted for a first version of the third austerity programme – but it was too late for him. Furthermore, it seems that it had exhausted also his use-value for his foreign backers because he was proved to be too self-centered and too incompetent for policy-making. The only thing that, for the time being, he is useful is as a political (and basically electoral) tool.

  1. The same (in reference to Varoufakis) was protagonist of an almost cinematographic controversy, which posed the problem of how to react if the banking system and the monetary authorities turn their backs on a government, blocking the mechanisms for creating and transferring the liquidity that regulate the daily economy? From here the issue regarding the top secret Plan B narrated by the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, in which Varoufakis decided to involve a professor of Information Technologies from the Columbia University, in order to hack the computer system of the Greek Tax Agency and get control of the platform. He wanted to use an electronic infrastructure to transfer money between the Greeks in case of emergency, as Varoufakis clearly admits, creating a parallel banking system as a payment system capable of keeping the economy in gear for a little while. This measure was never approved, and according to our economic sensitivity (however limited) it could turn out to be a buffer solution: in your opinion, would such a strategy make sense to be adopted? Or rather, did it have a possibility of being successfully applied? Would you support it or would you suggest approaching the situation in another way?

Let us clear things first.

The so-called plan X of Varoufakis was simply an idea. Ironically, even close associates of him betrayed that it never existed as an operational plan. The basic idea was to organize a public system that could collect directly payments for citizens for covering their payments to the state. This would be independent from the banking system, which was grosso modo controlled by the ECB through the Bank of Greece. Then, this public system could evolve to make payments by the state and thus provide an alternative payments system. Such a mechanism needs time to be organized. It can give some limited degrees off freedom from the EU and the ECB. However, it cannot stand if it is confronted by the main financial system. In the best case it can sustain the state’s fiscal solvency for a limited period. Concluding, this plan could possibly buy some time – if it was operational – against EU’s pressure. But ultimately it will crumble so long as Greece remained withing the EU.

Concluding, this Varoufakis’ idea was another piece of half-baked wizardry. Furthermore, it was never formally accepted by SYRIA as it was afraid of doing even so.

However, the idea of using a parallel currency within a Left programme of disengagement from the EU and socialist transition can be useful. An economy of a country that revolts against the international imperialist order would face an unmerciful international pressure. This would probably mean that it would be cut off from international currencies necessary for buying much needed foreign goods. In such a case, the revolting country would need to safeguard and use with prudence whatever foreign reserves it has. In such cases the creation of two parallel currencies – one for foreign transactions and one for internal transactions – is a well-known tool. The Soviet Union (and also Cuba and others) have used it. Of course, there are other tools that can be used in conjunction or stand-alone (e.g. multiple exchange rates). The Greek revolutionary Left has discussed such ideas as part of a transitional programme. However, these tools can work only outside the EU and its EMU. They are useless if you remain shackled to it.

An interview on Italy, Greece, the Left and Marxism – VOX POPULI

  1. In reference to the previous question, we cannot forget to mention the recent debates on the difficulties concerning leaving the EU (and we’re taking for granted this is even possible) and ask you a couple of questions about it. Your and Sergio Cesaratto’s article on the Italian website SinistraInRete describes how the Greek economic recovery was described by the European authorities as possible only through the strict austerity (prescribed first by the Troika, now under the supervision of the MES) bringing you to a unanimous conclusion: it’s not possible to rectify the fallacious Greek productive model imposed by the consequences of the access to the European single market, if not outside the current EU. Is, therefore, in your opinion, the EU completely unreformable? If so, how serious are the risks for exiting the EU according to your estimates, both for Greece and for Italy?

The European integration project is an imperialist project. This is its DNA. It was created as such; and more specifically as the economic and political back bone of the West in Europe in the face of the Eastern bloc. At that period, it was under the auspices of the US. It evolved as a separate imperialist pole essentially after the collapse of the Eastern bloc; although this tendency was already latent within it before. Its economic mechanism rests upon the imperialist (economic) exploitation of less developed economies. Its political record is equally dismal. Elites and big conglomerates dominate its functions.

This imperialist project cannot be reformed. This is a myth only for idiots. It has been floating for several decades – remember the euro-communist babblings – and it has been disproved by reality.

Moreover, this project is today in deep crisis. It cannot stand up to its main adversary, the US. It is riddled with internal problems and contradictions. Because of these, it is even more dangerous as it attempts to solve its problems by putting their burden on the backs of the peoples of Europe and other regions.

For countries like Greece and Italy breaking out form the shackles of the EU is indeed very difficult. It can certainly not be done the easy way because EU’s shaking house of cards cannot afford even minor disengagements from it. It is afraid that it would generate a domino process and lead to its total disintegration. For this reason, it reacts so violently against any such threat. Nevertheless, for the peoples of Europe – and particularly for those of the peripheral countries – there is no other way apart from struggling to disengage from this reactionary edifice. It is there only possibility for achieving a better future; if not for them at least for their children.

  1. It has been hypothesized, outside the institutions, to make the banking sector European by setting up a common clearing house in such a way as to be able to rebalance the profound inequalities between the member states’ economies. There has often been speculation about a common program to combat poverty supported via centralized fiscal policies and the abolition of harmful statutes, such as those relating to the policies that maintain the natural unemployment rate (the Lisbon Treaties is a primary case of such statutes). Do you think that those measures can be functional for a program of radical transformation of the European Union (potentially revolutionary, if you will) or are they just a pious illusion? There have also often been talks of creating alternative currencies valid only within national borders. In Italy this argument has been passed off as the political program of the right on the mini bonds, a non-forced “currency” given by the securitization of new debt: keeping the political instrumentalization of the topic aside, is the use of an alternative currency parallel to the euro a possible option to be used to move forward (this obviously requires a revision of the European treaties concerning the characteristics of the single currency), in your opinion?

There are many proposals by bourgeois perspectives that try to fix some of the growing problems and contradictions of the EU. The creation of a banking union (that is of a common supervisory mechanism and a common deposits’ insurance mechanism) that would unify the country-members’ banking systems and make them more stable. Another proposal are the common EU bonds (that will make borrowing costs the same). One problem of all these proposals is that they oblige the dominant euro-core economies to pay. But the very European integration project has been created for them to be better off. For this reason, they face their resolute opposition. Only in some cases (e.g. banking union) some limited and basically cosmetic steps have been taken.

Regarding the mini-bot proposal, I do not consider it as serious. Essentially, it resembles to the Varoufakis’ plan X and suffers from the same problems and deficiencies. I have refered to them in a previous question.

  1. In addition to the Europe of the fiscal compact and the trap of cofinancing, impossible to spend in a timely manner for Italy because of the risk of the infringement procedure, is there still hope for a European project?

As I said before, I do not think that there can be a common project of a social Europe within the framework of the EU.

But also, I think that it is highly improbable to emerge a common European movement leading to another direction. The class struggle in the various European countries is very differentiated and exhibits very uneven levels. Hence, in each country the class struggle – and within it the struggle for disengaging from the EU – will take its own path and its own timing.

An interview on Italy, Greece, the Left and Marxism – VOX POPULI

  1. Do you consider the Eurosceptic program of communist or leftist political groups like the KKE and France Inoumise credible? In Italy, the Eurostop platform, for example, adopts the Euro-Mediterranean Dawn project of Marxist professor Luciano Vasapollo. Have you heard about this proposal and what are your thoughts about it? Is it a viable option?

To my knowledge, these are different positions.

The Greek KKE has a terribly hypocritical position. It argues that disengaging from the EU is insignificant because there will still be capitalism. So, it practically makes the absurd argument that first you achieve socialism and then you leave the EU. Of course, it hypocritically bypasses the argument that you cannot build socialism unless you have broken out from the EU first. KKE adopts this position today (contrary to its previous historical position about disengaging from the EU) not out of idiocy but out of political conformism. It knows very well that the anti-EU position is an anathema for the Greek bourgeoisie and KKE does not want to face its wrath as it is well established within the official political system. Marx had written that the Church of England does not care if you dispute the 99 out of its 100 articles of faith. However, it becomes wild if you dispute 1% of its property. KKE prefers to mouth big leftish declarations but abstains from challenging crucial elements of the bourgeois system.

The position of France Insoumise is different and it is typical of a short-sighted euro-scepticism that cannot challenge the EU. All those leftist Eurosceptics argue that there is a progressive alternative if you leave the European Monetary Union (EMU) but you stay within the EU (that is the Common Market and the political structures). This is an utterly stupid – if not hypocritical – position. The core of the imperialist and the economically exploitative mechanism of the European integration lies in the Common Market. The euro is a complimentary aspect. Also, the political mechanism of the European integration has in its genes the bourgeois prerogatives.

Finally, regarding proposals like that of L.Vasapollo I think that they are too good to be true. As I said before, the class struggle and the political consciousness of the working class and the popular strata is very different and uneven even in the euro-Mediterranean countries. Hence, their trajectories are quite different and not easy to converge. So, I do not see as feasible – at least at the time being – such a proposal.

  1. In 2004 you published a text which is almost impossible to find in Italy, «Forms of existence of abstract labor and value-form». Could you give us a view of your interpretation on the Marxian theory of value in relation to new schools of study (such as TSSI, the SSS or, closer to us, the Neue Marx Lektüre begun by Rubin and Pashukanis and completed by the works of Reichelt and Backhaus )?

This is a very big issue and cannot be addressed here. I will give only a few hints.

I consider that the essence of value is abstract labour. The latter is defined in the sphere of production and – at a first level – independently from money. Of course, in its full development, abstract labour is expressed through the general equivalent (that is money). For this reason, I maintain that Marx’s distinction between the internal measure of value (that is labour) and the external measure of value (that is money) is correct. Thus, approaches that identify directly abstract labour with money (like the New Solution to the Transformation Problem, or the value-form theorists) are erroneous.

I totally disagree with the Neue Lekture and M.Heinrich’s endeavours. They too equate abstract value with money. Moreover, they totally misrepresent Marx by arguing either that he did not had a Labour Theory of Value (as their habitual popularizer D.Harvey has written) or that he had a monetary theory of value. First, it has been shown not only by me but also by others, that their analysis has nothing to do with Pashukanis and especially Rubin. Rubin has explicitly said that the essence of value is abstract labour and it can be conceived independently from money. The Neue Lekture and their fellow-travelers are doing a terribly misrepresentation of his views. Second, the argument about a monetary theory of value is absurd and leads, ultimately, to the abandonment of the concept of value as redundant. The first so-called ‘Rubin School’ (Benetti, Cartelier etc.) has followed this road. The value-form theorists also did the same. Moreover, the Neue Lekture writers exhibit an unbelievable ignorance of the actual workings of a capitalist economy and simply occupy themselves with dubious philological interpretations of Marx’s works. Overall, I think that the Neue Lekture does a terrible disservice to Marxism. It disintegrates it as a coherent system. And its political connotations are equally disastrous: it leads Marxists to be the handmaidens of bourgeois reformism.

Finally, regarding the TSS, I do not agree with the way the model time.

An interview on Italy, Greece, the Left and Marxism – VOX POPULI

  1. Do you consider the opposition to the EU of sovereignist organizations such as Salvini’s League credible/sincere/honest/reasonable/conceivable?

Well, I think that in several more developed European capitalisms (not in Greece) there are strong fractions of their bourgeoisies that are disappointed by the course of the European integration. More specifically, they are angered from the growing power of Germany and the cluster of economies around it. These are the main forces behind LePen and Salvini. These forces aspire to some other international alliances and usually look towards the US (see for example Boris Johnson). In this sense there maybe sincere in their confrontation with the EU. There may also strike some form of compromise (temporary or not).

In all cases this is a different road – and also a rival one – to that of the Left and the people. Their course is for a differently structured capitalism. And the costs for this transformation will be paid by the working class and the people. The road of the Left should be to struggle for disengaging from the EU as a first necessary step for creating socialism.

  1. How do you judge the recent victory of the center-right in Greece and what consequences will there be in your country’s relationship with European institutions?

SYRIZA, with its opportunism and its subservience to bourgeois interests, paved the way for the recent big victory of New Democracy. This right-wing government proceeds with a very aggressive policy. In terms of economic policy there is nos serious difference between SYRIZA and ND. The directions of economic policy in Greece are being dictated by the Economic Adjustment Programme. The only thing that both the previous and this governments can do is to redistribute some of the so-called super-surplus (that is blood money stolen from the people and accumulated on top of the Programme’s targets). Both SYRIZA and ND gave tax allowances to capital. Their only difference is that SYRIZA taxed the small bourgeoisie and the upper working class and gave some peanuts to the precariat. The ND changes this by giving some peanuts to the small bourgeoisie and the upper working class.

In political and institutional matters, the ND proceeds with far-reaching reactionary changes (privatisations, police repression, trade unions laws, entrepreneuralisation of education etc.). This has already produced mass popular reactions. For the first time, after the stagnation of the SYRIZA era, there are again mass mobilisations and demonstrations in Greece.

The economic situation is on a razor’s end. There is no serious recuperation from the crisis and the economy lives on drugs. The debt problem remains huge. Apart from the internal causes, a possible new world economic crash would leave the Greek economy in tatters.

In these conditions, the EU on the one hand accommodates a bit ND’s policies. But on the other hand, it issues stern warnings and exerts pressure. It wants to avoid having to tackle an Italian problem together with a Greek problem; for example. But it does not want to leave Greece footloose because this will create a bad example to others and also new problems.

The US plays its cards both in the entrepreneurial front but also in the geopolitical one exerting its leverage in the Greek – Turkish rivalry.

Stavros Mavroudeas
He is currently Professor of Political Economy at the Department of Social Policy of Panteion University. He was previously Professor of Political Economy at the Department of Economics of the University of Macedonia. He studied at the Economics Department of the National Kapodistriakon University of Athens, from where he received his BA Economics (1985 - First Class Honours).

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