Capitulating to adults
by Michael Roberts
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!
This article first appeared on Michael Roberts's Blog. Reproduced with permission.