Elections in Greece and France

Originally published at Critical Legal Thinking May 11, 2012


The Eight of May was the Fête de la Vic­toire in France. It was also the day of François Hollande’s first pub­lic appear­ance as president-elect. The right-wing Le Figaro fea­tured pho­to­graphs of ‘deux pres­id­ents sous l’Arc de Tri­omphe’, in which Sarkozy man­aged to look even more dis­gruntled than usual and Hol­lande looked as if he had just grasped a double-edge sword by the blade.

The pub­lic hol­i­day com­mem­or­ates the sur­render of Ger­many at the end of WWII and the defeat of fas­cism in most of the states of Europe – Spain and Por­tugal being the excep­tions. It was an inter­est­ing day as left-wing news­pa­pers like Libéra­tion, L’Humanité and Le Monde expressed con­cern about the rise of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and a near 20% sup­port for Mar­ine le Pen in France while at the same time not­ing left-wing advances. Without draw­ing any par­al­lels, it is also worth remark­ing that the con­sensus is that no mat­ter what François Hol­lande thinks about aus­ter­ity, Ger­many rules.

Every­one is agreed that Hol­lande is not a revolu­tion­ary and that he may well con­tinue the neo-liberal policies of Sarkozy, though without the venom­ous racist rhet­oric. The old saw about ‘cam­paign­ing on the left and rul­ing on the right’ is tailor-made for the Europe’s centre-left parties. When Angela Merkel said she would wel­come him with open arms, she prob­ably had this in mind. But as yet it is not at all cer­tain that this is what Hol­lande will do. There are a num­ber of reas­ons why he might not, includ­ing the gen­eral col­lapse of neo­lib­er­al­ism as an eco­nomic the­ory, whatever about the struc­tures of wealth and power it is inten­ded to sup­port. In any case, Alexis Tsipras of the SYRIZA party in Greece, is not toe­ing any old left/right centre line. He has ter­ri­fied the mar­kets appar­ently, and august bod­ies such as the EU Com­mis­sion and the IMF are trem­bling and re-orientating them­selves to the bizarre fact that a nation is not pre­pared to immis­er­ate itself to save for­eign banks.

In many ways this is the usual news­pa­per guff. Nev­er­the­less some­thing new is afoot in Europe and it might be timely to appraise it.

It is a start­ling fact that ten gov­ern­ments have fallen as a dir­ect con­sequence of the crisis: Fin­land, Slov­e­nia, Slov­akia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Ire­land, Por­tugal, Romania and The Neth­er­lands. Ice­land – out­side the Euro­zone – makes eleven. Six of these, includ­ing Ire­land, res­ul­ted in the elec­tion of right wing gov­ern­ments. Many com­ment­at­ors have inter­preted this as a swing to the right. How­ever, it must be observed that in the Tweedledum/Tweedledee con­test that counts as polit­ics nowadays, the only way to reject the views of Tweedle­dum is to vote for Tweedledee even though he will pro­sec­ute exactly the same policies. There­fore, these votes are bet­ter read as a rejec­tion of, and pun­ish­ment of, the gov­ern­ments believed to be respons­ible for the crisis. The people expressed their thoughts in the only way pos­sible so far. In other words, these elec­tions rep­res­ent the first stir­rings of demo­cracy, the people test­ing their power. It must also be remembered that con­sid­er­able man­oeuv­ring has taken place in some coun­tries to pre­vent just such an expres­sion of demo­cracy – Italy’s ‘expert’ gov­ern­ment being a case in point. It now looks as though Greece will go for a second Gen­eral Elec­tion, a pos­sib­il­ity rel­ished by people like Tsipras.

This, in fact is what has made the mar­kets jit­tery. What if people use elec­tions to express their opin­ions rather than put­ting Tweedle­dum back in as usual? Is it pos­sible that elec­tions could become unpre­dict­able? What kind of instabil­ity would occur if elec­tions actu­ally worked? And what would rich people (aka The Mar­ket) think? Would politi­cians be expec­ted to act on their prom­ises? That way mad­ness lies.

The rise of the far-right is another aspect of the elec­tions that is exer­cising a lot of word-processors at the moment, and undoubtedly Greece’s Golden Dawn is a ter­ri­fy­ing organ­isa­tion, a kind of BNP on crack. They remind me of those people who thought the Da Vinci Code was actual his­tory – except in this case the set text is Mein Kampf. In France, Mar­ine Le Pen has mod­er­ated her lan­guage in the usual way, but she still rep­res­ents the good old mix of xeno­pho­bia, racism and corporate-statism. France often tries to for­get that Mar­shall Petain not only col­lab­or­ated with Hitler, but insti­tuted his own brand of fas­cism in Vichy. And Greece has had the Col­on­els. There is a fas­cist rump in every state in the world. It hides in the Repub­lican Party in the USA, for example, in the Tory party in the UK, in Fine Gael in Ire­land. I would sug­gest that it’s bet­ter to see it expressed in far-right parties like the EDL, BNP, FN or Golden Dawn than have it lurk­ing in centre-right coali­tions, driv­ing the nation­al­ist, anti-immigrant, anti-worker, anti-gay rights agenda. At least we’d know where they were.

For me, the most start­ling devel­op­ment of all is the re-emergence of the left/right dis­course after thirty years of right-wing hege­mony. As little as four years ago it was fash­ion­able to use the term ‘left-wing’ as a syn­onym for ‘crank’. Nobody was described as right-wing. Neo­lib­er­al­ism was regarded as neut­ral, a fact of life rather than an ideo­logy, to which there was no altern­at­ive because his­tory was over. It was suf­fi­cient to say that the mar­kets would not wear a policy for it to be regarded as imprac­tical. Ideo­lo­gical con­flict, cer­tainly in the sense of left-wing polit­ics, was over and class war­fare was a thing of the past.

None of it went away, of course, it was just that the main­stream media ignored it. It still does to a large extent. But sud­denly the name of Marx crops up in cas­ual con­ver­sa­tion. Politi­cians are routinely described as left or right. Class is back. This is an earth­quake in pub­lic dis­course. It involves the return of the repressed, to coin a phrase, the dark under-consciousness of the cap­it­al­ist con­sensus. Vast swathes of the pop­u­la­tion always knew there was a class con­flict and they were los­ing it – people in pre­cari­ous labour, unem­ployed people, people who couldn’t afford health insur­ance, dis­abled people – but they didn’t have a name for it. If noth­ing else the crisis has been a nam­ing of names. The most sig­ni­fic­ant chal­lenge for the left in the com­ing years is not power or revolu­tion, but to re-establish the left-wing ana­lysis as cent­ral to debate. In the mean­time, increas­ing the left vote at elec­tions has a use­ful dis­cip­lin­ary purpose.

The Irish elec­tion of 2011 is instruct­ive in this regard. In the pre­vi­ous elec­tion the com­bined total of left-wing seats was approx­im­ately 15%. In 2011, the left vote increased to 38.5%. Yet the gov­ern­ment that res­ul­ted from that elec­tion is a right-wing/centre-left coali­tion, with the Irish Labour Party as junior part­ner pro­sec­ut­ing all the bru­tal aus­ter­ity meas­ures they had cam­paigned against under the fatal slo­gan ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way’. What this means is that the crit­ical mass of left-wing and left lean­ing voters was not suf­fi­cient to push the ILP into a more rad­ical stance. In Greece, on the other hand, the crit­ical mass, com­bined with massive street protests and gen­eral strikes, may well be enough to force PASOK, the social­ist party, to come to terms with SYRIZA in due course, if not in this elec­tion, then in the next or the next. What is hap­pen­ing is the rad­ic­al­isa­tion of pub­lic dis­course, a pos­sib­il­ity that ter­ri­fies those who bene­fit most from the status quo.

In all of this the fig­ure of Alexis Tsipras is one of the most inter­est­ing. As of today he has declared the Greek Bail­out terms null and void and threatened to nation­al­ise the banks. He can­not form a gov­ern­ment but is said to rel­ish the thought of fight­ing another elec­tion in a month or two. The mar­kets are wor­ried and there­fore the politi­cians are wor­ried. What they are wor­ried about is, I think, that Alexis Tsipras’ middle name is Hugo. A European Chavez might just be enough to ignite the powder-keg that they’re sit­ting on. If Greece went left, a la the Bolivarian Revolu­tion, the other little PIGGIES might think the same way. After all, many of us have already nation­al­ised our banks any­way, and Ire­land has nation­al­ised a vast hous­ing stock. It’s the flip of an ideo­lo­gical switch between hold­ing these insti­tu­tions in trust for the people who ruined them in the first place, and hold­ing them in trust for the people. It’s what happened in South Amer­ica, so maybe that con­tin­ent is the one to lead us out of our des­pair­ing sub­ser­vi­ence to the market.

What has Ber­lin shak­ing cudgels, share prices fall­ing, bond spreads increas­ing, Euro­zone fin­ance min­is­ters ‘engaged in heated debate’ and Wolfgang Schaüble flatly declar­ing that ‘the Greek nation knows what it has to do’ is the sound of a cork pop­ping. It’s def­in­itely not cham­pagne this time round. In fact it’s very like the sound of a genie escaping.

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