'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Black Goats 

The severity of the crisis within in the European Union can no longer be concealed. There is no way to dismiss it as a creation of a vocal minority within Greece, or, even a restive majority there, any longer, It is an economic catastrophe that threatens to engulf much of the EU. Investors made it official today, requiring newspapers of record like the New York Times to acknowledge it when they sold off billions of dollars of equities. Spain is next, and, then, after that, the UK, and then, after that . . . well, who knows?

Moody's summarized the situation today:

The banking systems of Portugal, Spain, but also Ireland, the UK and Italy are increasingly moving into the focus of the markets. Although the challenges in these six countries are different, the potential for contagion from their sovereign [credit profile] as observed in Greece is also spreading to some other countries and to the extent this affects these countries it could dilute some of the inherent differences in the banking systems and impose a common threat, Moody's said. Moody's said the concerns over Greece could spread to Portugal – which is at the forefront of investor concerns – but also Spain, Italy, Ireland, Greece and the UK. A key factor ... will be the market's view of likely success or otherwise of the recently agreed IMF and European Union support package.

Success in this context is most definitely a relative term. All of the countries involved will, even in the best case scenario as defined by financial markets and transnational economic institutions, have to substantially reduce public sector spending during one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory. For example, in the UK, the Institute of Fiscal Studies describes the cuts proposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats as the most severe since the 1970s, while the ones proposed by the Conservatives will be worse than any since the World War II. Predictably, there is an expectation that some of the work performed by sacked civil service workers will be outsourced. And, of course, from the standpoint of both investors and workers, there is the fear that such austerity measures will cause the decline in demand to spiral out of control, as they did in Eastern Europe and the former republics of the USSR in the 1990s.

Is it any wonder then, that the streets of Athens erupted yesterday, as the Greek Parliament was about to vote upon austerity measures imposed by the IMF and the EU? On a percentage basis, the approximate number of protesters in Greece was equivalent to 3 million ones in the US. People around the world were shocked at the massive turnout, the attacks upon institutions of authority and the death of 3 workers trapped in a bank set afire with Molotov cocktails, but they shouldn't have been. Greece has been socially turbulent since the time of the military dictatorship, and appears to be heading in either one of two directions. First, there is possibility that it will follow a trajectory similar to the one experienced in Argentina in late 2001, a default upon its debt, and a dissolution of the existing political system, subject to a subsequent reformulation of electoral democracy. It has a surface plausibility because Greece, like Argentina, has a well developed anti-authoritarian resistance potentially capable of rendering governance in conformity with the demands of the EU and the IMF impossible. Given the economic and monetary integration of the EU, all of which serve capital, in contrast to the more collaborative ties within South America, and the willingness of left leaning regimes there to support one another during times of crisis, it is hard to comprehend how this could be accomodated by anything other than the expulsion of Greece from the eurozone.

Second, there is the more sinister alternative of martial law, justified as purportedly necessary for the preservation of Greek democracy. One already gets the sense from much of the coverage in American and British media that such a move would be welcomed. There is a clear subtext to these articles to the effect that there is a silent majority in Greece that is being terrorized by a violent, out of control minority. But a crackdown presents a lot of problems. Within Greece, there would be massive resistance, and possibly even a refusal by many in the military to follow orders. Others within the civil service would either actively or passive resist, rendering the country ungovernable. After all, the EU and the IMF are requiring cuts in public sector salaries and benefits as a condition for receiving assistance, something that makes about as much sense as a means of preserving social order as the US discharge of Baathists from the Iraqi military after the 2003 invasion. Within Europe, the imposition of martial law for the purpose of collecting debts for German and French banks would probably ignite continental resistance as well. Accordingly, a more likely prospect is a sotto vocce increase in financial assistance for the Greek police and military so as to enhance their ability to suppress protest, a process that will be blandly described as a modernization.

For the left, the events in Greece present new challenges. While it is too soon to know who is responsible for the 3 deaths at the Marfin Egnafia bank, and one can never fully dismiss the prospect of agent provacateurs, the overwhelming likelihood is that people who identify themselves as part of the more violent anti-authoritarian movement in Greece are responsible. Even if we subsequently learn to the contrary, it is a good time for reflection, something beyond the informed Marxist critique presented by Louis Proyect. Proyect makes a number of good points, especially in regard to the likelihood that the anarchist movement in Greece (and, perhaps, now, Europe, as well?) will experience even more aggressive law enforcement attempts at infiltration and provocation. His reference to statements made by Stathis Gourgouris at the 2009 Left Forum to the effect that there was a growing nihilism among young Greeks, a sense that even left politics had been corrupted, such that acts of pure rage and violence were being celebrated, is worrisome.

Anarchists should not allow an understandable distaste for Proyect's hostility towards spontaneous action to avoid confronting the tragedy at the bank. Anarchism, in its most popular manifestations, forged bonds with workers, and interacted with them in their communities, participating in the forging of new, proletarian cultures of lifestyle and resistance. Each creatively influenced the other, to the extent that, in many instances, it became difficult to distinguish between the community and anarchism. Most importantly, anarchists prized the importance of education, believing that they could reach people and persuade them to embrace a future without wage labour and hierarchy. Property destruction can, in appropriate circumstances, facilitate this educational process by exposing the absurdity of property and commodity relations. In marked contrast to Christians and Marxist-Leninists, with their emphasis upon vanguardist forms of organization, anarchists believed that people possess within themselves the capacity of creating a compassionate, egalitarian society, and, moreover, that there is no other way to do so.

If the people who attacked the bank identify as anarchists, they became estranged from these essential aspects of anarchism. No doubt, there are moments when violent resistance to the predations of the state are necessary, but, in this instance, they didn't attack the state, they firebombed a bank with the employees still inside. Anarchists of the past would have considered them their allies, and sought to engage them. Undoubtedly, there are many contemporary anarchists within and without Greece who did as well. Already, the individuality of the victims is being erased, as there is a rush by the Greek state and the transnational media to exploit them for their own purposes, much as the 9/11 victims were exploited to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sadly, it seems that some anarchists expect this depersonalization to relieve them of the need to respond to questions of accountability. For example, there is the rationalization that the bank should have been closed, as they apparently often are during protests. Or, similarly, denunciations of the owner of the bank as the murderer of the victims. In the linked report, we encounter the expropriation of the lives of the victims in the service of the anarchist cause, even though they were apparently killed by anti-authoritarian, possibly anarchist, protesters. Beyond the offensiveness, it comes across as credible as claims of the Chicago police that the Black Panthers were responsible for the death of Mark Clark. One of the reasons why anarchism has been ascendant in recent decades has been the unwillingness of its adherents to reduce the populace to fungibility, as Marxist-Leninists, such as Stalin and Mao, did. Now, we see some anarchists, dismayed by what happened, and yet, incapable of responding coherently, participating in the same process.

Proyect analogizes the Greek anti-authoritarians to the Argentinian piqueteros, the mass movement of the unemployed that emerged in the late 1990s, asserting that both display a fetish against politics. A better example might be what transpired in Barcelona in Spain in the early to mid-1930s, when, according to Chris Ealham, in his just released book, Anarchism and the City, CNT and FAI anarchist militants initiated a cycle of insurrections that sapped much of the strength of anarcho-syndicalism in the city prior to the 1936 coup. The CNT lost so much support as a result of the repression that it increasingly relied upon bank robberies to finance itself prior to the Popular Front victory. Ealham implies that the failure of the CNT to carry out a revolution in the city after the coup was partially attributable to this loss of strength as well as the sectarianism of many militants.

It is understandably difficult for many anti-authoritarians to address this while still under assault from the police. But is there any choice? One Greek said that the Germans considered Greece a black goat, meaning that they didn't believe that it was necessary for Greece to remain in the EU. But if you take a look, there are quite a number of black goats around these days, people and institutions transforming themselves into pariahs through their response to the Greek crisis, Merkel, the EU, the IMF, PASOK . . . . and the anarchists could become another one in the herd. And, that's one of the worst things that could happen, because that really would open the way to a nihilistic response to the crisis, not just in Greece, but throughout Europe.

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