Lapavitsas, Varoufakis, Marx in Keynes

Costas Lapavitsas, tudi sam poslanec Sirize, v intervjuju za Jacobin o Varoufakisu, marksizmu, Keynesu, pogajanjih Sirize z “institucujami” in grški levici.


Foto: Siriza

Let’s talk a little bit about Varoufakis to the extent that you can. Of course, there’s been enormous media babble around Varoufakis, around his personality, his style, and so on. And there’s also been some serious pieces about him, by Michael Roberts for example, called “More Erratic than Marxist.” First of all, what sort of role did Varoufakis play on the Greek left prior to the election of Syriza?

I know that there’s been a lot of pieces on Varoufakis and his lifestyle and what he stands for, and I don’t really want to comment on that. This is for others to do. Not now — possibly later (the impact it has had on politics and so on.)

As for whether he’s a Marxist or a radical or so on, I would recommend more discerning judgement in the use of the term “Marxist,” particularly by people who make a name for themselves as Marxists because they use certain words and they talk a lot about Marxism, whereas the substance of their analysis is the most pedestrian economic and politics that one can imagine. So greater restraint in calling or not calling people “Marxist,” please. This is no longer university amphitheater politics — this is real, okay?

So Varoufakis himself: I’ve known Varoufakis for a long time as an economist, of course. I don’t think you can call him a man of the Left in the sense of the radical or certainly not the revolutionary left, not in the sense that we would recognize in this country, but he is certainly a man who belongs to the left of center.

He’s always been that. He’s always been heterodox and critical in his economics. He’s always been a man who has rejected neoclassical economics and neoclassical theory in his work. And he’s always been ready to come up with policy advice which was outside the box and ready to think about alternative paths.

These are all pluses, in my book. However, when you look at his trajectory, you have to recognize that he was also an adviser to the government of George Papandreou, which was the first government that introduced the bailout policies in Greece, and he remained associated with them for a significant length of time. So in that sense, I don’t think you can call him a man of the Left in any systematic way.

And Varoufakis himself explicitly located his position within a kind of Keynesian framework, and is allied with people like James Galbraith who are openly Keynesians.

Let me come clean on this. Keynes and Keynesianism, unfortunately, remain the most powerful tools we’ve got, even as Marxists, for dealing with issues of policy in the here and now. The Marxist tradition is very powerful in dealing with the medium-term and longer-term questions and understanding the class dimensions and social dimensions of economics and society in general, of course. There’s no comparison in these realms.

But, for dealing with policy in the here and now, unfortunately, Keynes and Keynesianism remain a very important set of ideas, concepts, and tools even for Marxists. That’s the reality. Whether some people like to use the ideas and not acknowledge them as Keynesian is something I don’t want to comment upon, but it happens.

So I cannot blame Varoufakis for that, for associating himself with Keynesians, because I’ve also associated myself with Keynesians, openly and explicitly so. If you showed me another way of doing things, I’d be delighted. But I can assure you, after many decades of working on Marxist economic theory, that there isn’t at the moment. So yes, Varoufakis has worked with Keynesians. But that isn’t really, in and of itself, a damning thing.

Of course you’re making a distinction between Marxism as an analytic tool and Keynesianism as a policy tool, but they also have different objectives, and Varoufakis has said explicitly that his objective is to save capitalism from itself. You don’t see that as a distinctive line of cleavage?

Oh yes, very much! Keynes is not Marx, and Keynesianism is not Marxism. Of course there’s a gulf between them, and it’s pretty much as you have said. Marxism is about overturning capitalism and heading towards socialism. It has always been about that, and it will remain about that. Keynesianism is not about that. It’s about improving capitalism and even rescuing it from itself. That’s exactly right.

However, when it comes to issues of policy such as fiscal policy, exchange-rate policy, banking policy, and so on — issues on which the Marxist left must necessarily position itself if it is to do serious politics rather than denouncing the world from small rooms — then you will rapidly discover that, like it or not, the concepts that Keynes used, the concepts that Keynesianism has worked with, play an indispensable role in working out strategy, which remains Marxist.

That’s the point I’m making. Unfortunately, there is no other way. And the sooner that Marxists realize that, the more relevant and realistic their own positions will become.

Let’s talk about the negotiations, then, which have obviously happened in several phases. I think it’s fair to say — and I don’t know if you agree — that there are now two spins on what happened on the negotiation front?

One spin, which is the dominant one both on the Marxist critical left and in the business press (except for figures like Paul Krugman and Galbraith), is that the Greeks — Varoufakis and so on — went in trying to play poker but without the right cards at their disposal, without anything ready to back up their strategy, and were basically beaten by the EU and particularly by the Germans.

The other spin, which comes from the pro-Varoufakis, pro-Syriza leadership media is that, actually, they played the negotiation game extremely cleverly and managed to turn the tables at least partially by putting the Germans on the defensive and by buying some breathing room that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and by legitimating a discourse about the un-payability of the debt and the inefficacy of the austerity measures and so on.

I don’t know whether you’d agree with that characterization of the two dominant readings, and if so, where do you position your interpretation of what has happened in relation to them?

I recognize much of what you’re saying. I don’t really want to position myself in regard to these two broad approaches, though without necessarily disagreeing with you. I’ll tell you what I think, and then it is for readers and others to work out which side I am most sympathetic with.

My main point, and I can start with that, is that this government went into negotiations with an approach which, as I’ve already said, was critical to its composition, to creating it, which is that we can go into the negotiating room and we can demand and fight for significant changes, including the lifting of austerity and the writing off of debt, while remaining firmly within the confines of the monetary union.

This is the key point. This is what I have called in my own work the “good euro” approach. That, by changing politics, by winning elections, by changing the balance of political forces in Greece and in Europe, we will negotiate and we will transform the monetary union and Europe as a whole because of the political cards that we will bring to the table. That’s how they went in. And their negotiating strategy was determined by that.

Now, there were elements of inexperience, which are inevitable, elements of personality, which are inevitable and to which were alluded to previously when you discussed Varoufakis and so on. These are important elements. However, the key thing was not that. The key thing was the strategy, and that needs to be understood very well, because you can get lost in arguments about poker, about bluffing, and this, that, and the other.

This government had a strategy, and it was as I laid it out just now. And it discovered reality. A reality, which is, I think, that this strategy has come to an end. It didn’t work. Yes, the political balance had changed in Greece, and changed dramatically. Because it isn’t just that this government had 40 percent of the vote, it also had 80 percent of popular support, as all polls were showing. But that counted for very, very little in the negotiations.

Why? Because the confines of the monetary union are what they are. They are not susceptible to this kind of argument. It’s a very rigid array of institutions with an embedded ideology and approach to things. The other side wasn’t going to budge just because there was a new left government in a small country.

So the Greeks went in there, they had high hopes, and they fell into the trap that those institutions had set up for them. And that trap basically meant (a) a liquidity shortage and (b) a financing shortage for the government. This is how the institutions translated their structural advantage in relation to the Greeks.

The Greeks had no options. They could not deal with that. Syriza could not deal with that, because it had accepted the confines of the euro. As long as you accept the confines of the Euro, you’ve got no effective answer. That’s the reason why this in the end took the form that it took.

They tried, they strove for something different. The other side, particularly the Germans, dug their heels in. And, towards the end of the negotiations, it was a matter of days before the banks would have had to be shut down. In that situation, the Greeks basically accepted a poor compromise.

I think there are two critical readings of the strategy of the governmental line within Syriza. One is that the euro is just simply taken as an article of faith, a principle that you cannot deviate from, either because it’s just in and of itself a “good thing” or because it’s legitimate within Greek society, and you can’t go against dominant opinion. Either that, or it’s based on an analysis that it’s possible to decipher divisions within the different EU powers, that it is possible to split Mario Draghi from Wolfgang Schaüble, that it’s possible to bring Matteo Renzi and François Hollande around to the Greek position, that it’s possible to rely on Obama to put pressure on Merkel, and so on.

What I think lots of people outside Greece have trouble understanding is both the idea that they might be tied to the euro as a matter of principle, a matter of faith; or the idea, that seems very naive, that these social liberal governments — or in the case of Obama, neoliberal governments — would somehow be objective allies against the Germans and the hardliners within the European Union. What’s your take on that? What’s the most charitable reading of the analytical framework they’re working from to write this strategy?

My reading of the analytical framework, when I approach it as a political economist, is completely damning, and I’ve said that openly. I said that many years ago actually, and I think events in the last few weeks have confirmed my initial position. I believe that, as Marxists, we must commence with the political economy of the situation, not with the balance of political forces. Unfortunately, the Greek left and much of the European left does it the other way around.

Starts with geopolitics rather than political economy?

Geopolitics and domestic politics. The balance of political forces, because that’s what Marxism has been reduced to, unfortunately. And, when you do that, when you commence with the politics — the balance of forces domestically or internationally — it is easy to engage in flights of fancy. It is easy to begin to think that, in the end, everything is politics, and therefore you can change the balance of political forces, and anything is achievable.

Well, I’m sorry, that’s not the case. And that’s not Marxism. As Marxists, we believe that politics, in the end is derivative of the material reality of economic and class relations. That’s a very, very profound statement by Karl Marx, so long as it is understood properly, so long as it’s not mechanical. The bottom line is this statement means that not everything is possible through politics.

And that’s exactly what we’ve just seen. Why? Because the political economy of the monetary union is paramount. Whether we like it or not, Europe and Greece exist now within the confines of a monetary union.

Unfortunately, much of the Marxist left has pretended that this is not the case or misunderstood the importance of money here. And that’s not surprising, because the European left simply doesn’t understand money and finance. It pretends that it does, but it doesn’t.

I repeat, what is feasible and what is not ultimately is determined by the political economy of the monetary union. Within the confines of European capitalism, of course — capitalism is the defining feature. Now Syriza has just discovered that. And it’s about time that it reconsidered things and it began to see how to shape politics and how to shape its political approach within those confines.

If it wants to achieve other things politically, it must change the institutional framework. There is no other way. To change that framework, you’ve got to go for a rupture. You’ve got to go for a break. You cannot reform the euro system. It’s impossible to reform the monetary union. That’s what became very clear.

Now, is this position tantamount to saying you cannot do anything unless you overthrow capitalism, which is what sections of the ultra-left are saying? That is clearly absurd ultra-leftism. You don’t need a socialist revolution, and you don’t need to overthrow capitalism at every minute of the day to do small things. Of course, we aim for the overthrow of capitalism, and of course ultimately we would like to see the socialist revolution. But that’s not in the cards at the moment.

You don’t need socialist revolution in Greece, and you don’t need to overthrow capitalism in Greece to get rid of austerity. You don’t. But you certainly need to get rid of the institutional framework of the euro. That simple position is not understood — or is not widely appreciated — within Syriza and not within the European left, and that has been a tragedy for years.

And the reason for this is that that position is more or less the position of Antarsya, of the KKE, and that because of the domestic balance of political forces, it’s not possible to concede these arguments, even on the analytical level, to these left critics?

That is part of it. In other words, we have a long pathology on the Greek left — and, I hasten to add, the British left too, what remains of it of course — which is being completely poisonous on this level.

But there’s a deeper thing here: it isn’t simply the pathological factionalism and so on. What’s at stake and what’s at issue among the non-Syriza left is a fear of power. It masquerades and hides itself behind big words. In the case of the Communist Party, every other word is about workers’ power. In Antarsya, every other sentence is about overthrowing capitalism and establishing communism. What this hides, really, is profound fear of power. A profound fear of power!

And they think that people don’t understand this, but it’s perfectly obvious that these people and these organizations are scared down to the very marrow of their bones by the prospect of responsibility and power. That’s why they’re taking these ultra-left positions.

There’s a traditional saying in Greek that a man who doesn’t want to get married keeps getting engaged. Well that’s what the Communists have been doing, unfortunately. Because they don’t want to tackle the question of dealing with the situation in the here and now, they talk about revolution.

So, if you do that, you don’t have to confront the question of the euro. You pretend the question of the euro is somehow either a minor question or a side question or whatever. Or you elevate things beyond: what you need is to get out of the European Union, to get out of NATO, to get out of this, that, and the other thing. In other words, you’re not offering any specific answers, because you’re answering everything.

A more charitable reading might be that they are concerned about the effects of power on left governments based on historical experience. They’re less afraid of power itself than the effect of power destroying the autonomy of social movements.

I can use an English saying here: if you’re scared of the fire, keep out of the kitchen. Politics is about that. It isn’t about theorizing, and it isn’t about lecturing in small rooms and so on.

Politics is about society as it is. And Greek society wants real answers in the here and now. Unfortunately, only Syriza began to provide that in its own way, and that’s why it’s where it is, and that’s why the other organizations are where they are.

Vir: Jacobin

Intervju je še precej daljši in v njem Lapavitsas podrobno govori tudi in predvsem o tem, zakaj in kako naj Grčija zapusti evropsko monetarno unijo, torej opusti evro – o “Grexitu”. Vsekakor vredno branja.


One Comment on “Lapavitsas, Varoufakis, Marx in Keynes”

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