Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What is Occupy Wall Street waiting for? (Podemos, Syriza and the new old left)

A spectre is haunting Europe once again, as well as the US of A. Not the spectre of communism this time, but of dissatisfaction with the current system (both political and economic, partly caused by the grave error of thinking they are separate realms – as Polanyi taught us). Although there are different dynamics at play (in the US just less and less participation, in elections and in civic life in general; whilst in Europe it manifests itself in the rise of “anti-system” parties, more visible in the left, and some mild xenophobia within the ranks of the right) the underlying trend seems to point towards a diminishing faith in the inherited way for collectively deciding how the common goods should be allocated (by transferring the responsibility for such decision to elected representatives, which are in turn organized in groups with a common platform on how they should direct the common affairs).
But nobody seems to translate that dissatisfaction into a realistic program to really improve things. One possible explanation is that after many years (in the case of the UK, Centuries) of democratic practice, representative democracy is seen as a sophisticated trough, and the party system everywhere as a way of distributing pork to the ideologically close, or in a time of fading ideologies, simply to friends and cronies of those in power, and every new politician that arrives to the scene full of promises of regeneration and transparency just seems to want to displace existing parties to get a place for themselves, without changing the underlying structure.
To clarify my own thinking on the issue, in this post we are going to examine the shortcomings of three “groups” (two of them organized already as political parties, one of which has already successfully seized power, and the third one a more diffuse “movement”): Syriza (leftist party who recently won the Greek elections), Podemos (leftist party that is currently polling as the number one contender to win the next Spanish national elections, although as they are still a year away anything can happen) and Occupy Wall Street (a quite amorphous group of people who may or may not be camping currently in some US city to draw attention to the sorry state of the world, or of American politics, or the plight of the poor, and that claims to represent the 99% of the population, or whatever percentage of the 99% that is opposed to the policies that favor the opposite 1%...)

·         Syriza: The guys have at least shown a lot of gumption for voluntarily willing to take charge of the huge basket case formerly known as Greece, after a disastrously failed austerity policy has left the Country in even worse shape than it was four years ago (no small feat). Most of the European press (that tends to tilt conservative these days) are going to demonize them no matter what they do, and the (also mostly conservative) governments of their fellow European countries are not going to lend them any hand, as their potential success would undermine the credibility of their own economic recipes (and embolden the broadly anti austerity tendencies of their opposition). So, given they have promised more they can deliver (but that’s almost part of the job definition of every politician nowadays, regardless of where they campaign), and that they preside over a highly corrupt, dysfunctional, every-man-for-himself Country the guys are screwed. Which may not be a bad thing after all, as the only way for them is up (even with the modest capital holders that may still had some money in the Country are already fleeing it, making a generalized bank run all the more likely with every passing day). However, given their chance of improving the life of their countrymen stand at best at a paltry 1%, instead of going bold and proposing some truly radical measure (from going really hard after tax evasion to confiscating the estates of the ultra rich to exiting the euro and refusing to pay the national debt altogether) all they are talking about is slowing the rate at which they pay an already absurd debt level (around 170% of GDP, but hey, Japan’s is even bigger, and nobody thinks of them as close to bankruptcy or demands stratospheric interest rates from them in order to lend them money). At the same time they ask for additional money to prop up their ailing banks… Unfortunately asking to renegotiate debt in more favorable terms and asking for additional lending do not sit well together (as you are just giving the other party in the negotiation all the leverage), as really all they can use are vague pleas to the already grim plight of their people, which central bankers and Brussels Eurocrats are pretty much inured to. We will talk a bit about the effect and consequences of debt reduction either towards the end of this post or in a future one, but let’s just advance that if that is all your program consists in… you are toast

·         Podemos: so these guys are not (yet) in power, and are already showing some ugly signs of not being as clean as they claim (their number 2 guy received half a million € from Venezuela for a study that apparently was never written –small potatoes as far as big time corruption goes, but with the added merit of being given to a University professor that at the time wielded no power and had no expectation of achieving it- and somehow forgot to declare it to the fiscal authorities until the press caught a whiff of the affaire). They were born within a wider social movement (“indignados”, who namely served as inspiration to other protest movements in many counties) and initially showed the same lack of clear purpose or organization, but they managed to put together a platform to the European elections (where normally interest runs really low, and the amount of voters that actually care to drag their asses to the polling stations is minimal, so votes can count more) and have a surprisingly strong showing (nothing earth shattering, a bit above 10% of the polls, but as nobody saw them coming from nowhere, it gave them a tremendous media exposure). At the beginning they were just a growing bunch of civic associations, motley groups of mostly single-issue citizens and a few university professors at the helm (professors of “political science”, which any reader of this blog will identify as a big no-no for me), but with the perspective of potential electoral success they quickly gave themselves a classical party organization, with a definite platform, a clique of commanding cadres and they essentially showed the door to anybody not willing to play along the rules they set. Probably unavoidable if they really want to win a “real” election (as opposed to the European level one where they have already competed, which is something of a make-election) and wield power…

Now one of the things they have finessed in the few months they have been in the limelight is their political program, jettisoning their original plea of instituting a Universal Basic Income (so they keep on becoming less and less endearing to yours truly, but probably loosing the likes of me is the least of their concerns) and becoming more and more undistinguishable from a traditional social democratic party, with some rhetorical appeal to traditional leftist sensibilities in that they would a) tax the rich more b) spend more in social services (unfortunately, the amount of spending, although never fully spelled out, is likely much bigger than the additional revenue brought in by the additional taxes), which in turn would require c) going deeper into debt, the Germans and the EU treaties (which impose a cap in the amount of deficit over the GDP you can incur) be damned…

·         Occupy Wall Street: From what I can still gather about them, they seem to be in a pre-Podemos stage (so not yet constituted a political party, or any form of organization that can aspire to compete even in a local election). They seem to be OK with being little more than a discussion forum, and the improving economy, whether it lifts all boats or not seem to have taken a lot of wind from their sails. As they were truly concerned by giving everybody a hearing and not stifling the discussion between the loosely affiliated members, there isn’t anything like a coherent program they have put together that could be praised or criticized, but one of their more recognizable mouthpieces, Dave Graeber (a fine fellow, whose Debt, the First 5,000 years I enjoyed greatly) is basically for a more or less universal “debt jubilee”, as he sees the forgiveness of debts as a necessary condition for the overcoming of our current unfair socioeconomic system.

So from these three examples we see the new left is essentially for more public spending, only partially financed by higher taxes on the rich, which sounds a bit like getting something from nothing. So not that different from the old left (and the old and present right, as promising free lunches has been a staple of politicians of every sign since the time of the original Athenian democracy). No wonder that the common thread, then, is the obsession with debt and not paying it (or paying it more slowly, which in a deflationary scenario may have the opposite effect). So ¿is debt leniency really a part of the solution? We will explore it in a separate post…

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