The Futility Of Reformism In Spain And Greece
By Jon Kofas
24 December, 2015
The thesis of this brief article is that reformism does not work and only leads to even greater sociopolitical conformity. This is as much the case today in Greece that has tried it, as in Spain endeavoring to try it under its new progressive PODEMOS party, as it has been throughout history. One reason that EU and US investors are bullish on Spanish securities, despite a temporary setback the day after the elections is because they know that the anti-austerity PODEMOS party will conform exactly as SYRIZA in Greece and neoliberal policies will prevail no matter who is in government.
Spain’s PODEMOS and Greece’s SYRIZA: Doomed Reformism
The general elections of Spain on 20 December 2015 sent mild shock waves across Spain’s markets, especially the banks that have benefited from government bailouts at the enormous expense of the general taxpayer. However, the rest of the European markets actually rose on the news, precisely because politicians and investors know it is highly unlikely that the anti-austerity party PODEMOS coming in with roughly 22% of the vote, third behind the Socialists and the ruling Conservative party, will not amount to any systemic change. The markets, politicians, and the world learned this lesson after the Greek anti-austerity party SYRIZA became even more pro-austerity than its conservative Socialist predecessor despite winning on an anti-austerity platform in January 2015. In short, the progressive reformist agenda of Greece’s SYRIZA which was very similar to PODEMOS quickly transformed into a neo-liberal pro-IMF monetarist one once in government.
Does PODEMOS have a different agenda than SYRIZA under Alexis Tsipras, and thus a different fate awaits it because its secretary-general Pablo Iglesias will stick to campaign promises of reform? Although the mainstream media focuses on the cult of personality in our age of celebrity politicians and businessmen, the reality is that even after Tsipras embraced austerity and neoliberal policies, Iglesias continued to support him. This is indicative that PODEMOS is more or less a party of petty bourgeois reformism that will quickly fold within the neoliberal mainstream, although it arose from the need to fill a political gap that the Socialists left when they embraced austerity and neo-liberalism.
The Socialist parties of Spain, Greece, Portugal and France that prevailed in the Reagan-Thatcher decade of the 1980s converted to neoliberal parties and were hardly different than their conservative counterparts in policy, despite the leftist rhetoric. Both Iglesias and Tsipras had roots in leftist (Euro-Communist – anti-Stalinist) politics in their youth, but both moved toward a more reformist social-democratic orientation that built careers against neoliberal policies and austerity. Just as in the 1980s when neoliberal policies prevailed against European Socialist parties advocating social-democracy, and just as the populist nationalist parties of Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia have caved under the pressures of globalization promoting neoliberalism, the fate awaiting Spain’s PODEMOS will be no different. The sooner their voters absolve themselves of such illusions and seek a genuine alternative to neoliberalism and austerity the better chance they will have to escape the fate of their counterparts in other countries that tried the road of bourgeois reformism.
The pro-neoliberal media in Spain and Greece and across the world have been labeling PODEMOS and SYRIZA as “far left”, “radical left”, “ultra-left wing” and anti-capitalist, which aspires to create a regime similar to that of the later Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Although it is true that the rhetoric of both PODEMOS and SYRIZA, parties that have declared solidarity, share some ideological elements of Socialism, they are also committed to “enlightened capitalism”, Keynesian economics, and a return to the old EU integration model based on interdependence rather than German political and economic hegemony. If we set aside the ideological rhetoric intended to win the disgruntled voters, which is not so different than EU Socialist parties fully committed to austerity and neoliberalism, and if we focus on the reformist contradiction of promising to change the neoliberal model into a rational enlightened capitalist one that would have a broad middle class as its social base, the question is whether finance capital would voluntarily yield its privileges for the sake of social harmony under a democratic system.
PODEMOS arose from the ashes of the politically bankrupt and corrupt Socialist Party that had embraced neoliberal policies and austerity as have the Socialist parties of France, Greece and Portugal. Its appeal is the disgruntled middle class of Spain that sees its future in doubt and fears that the EU’s fourth largest economy is not so different than Greece. After all, Greece and Spain have the highest unemployment in the EU above 20 percent, they both have contracting economies, they both have rising debt-to-GDP levels despite five years of austerity, and they both have dim prospects for recovery that would improve living standards for the working class and middle class.
Above all, a segment of the population in Spain that backs PODEMOS knows that the EU of today is not the EU of pre-2008 that rested on an integration model of interdependence, with EU funds subsidizing the weaker economies to lift them closer to the levels of the northwest core in Europe. The PODEMOS voters know as do those in SYRIZA that the hard euro currency only helps to strengthen large capital in the EU and within it Germany that exerts financial control and through it determines fiscal policy, trade policy, labor policy and everything impacting society from health to education. In short, PODEMOS backers know very well as do their Greek counterparts that there is no such thing as national sovereignty, no such thing as popular mandate, no democracy because the new model of integration based on a patron (core sector)-client (periphery and semi-periphery) is now in effect and it is no different than the US model of regional integration that has kept US southern neighbors in a state of dependency since the Spanish-American War.
PEDEMOS appeals to young intellectuals for the most part who are still idealistic enough to believe in reformism, just as their Greek counterparts who are now thoroughly disillusioned that SYRIZA has turned out to be much worse than the Conservative and Socialist party in terms of caving to IMF-German austerity and neoliberal policy demands. The structure of the young-reformist appealing party will end up as SYRIZA in Greece because it has no commitment to grassroots organizing and to systemic change that will end the patron-client integration model and assert national sovereignty based on a social justice framework. If PODEMOS comes to power, its fate will be exactly as that of SYRIZA that served to co-opt the disgruntled anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal masses, de-radicalized them and served them on a silver platter to the neoliberal political and financial establishment of EU and international capitalism.
Like SYRIZA in Greece that has actually taken austerity and neoliberal policies even farther to the right than the previous right-wing government, PODEMOS will follow the same path, assuming it comes to power. As long as it is in the opposition, it will insist that it is against austerity and neoliberal policies, that it represents the middle class and workers, that it wants a new kind of integration model because it supports Spain’s place within the EU; in other words, arguments that the Greek SYRIZA voters heard many times until they faced the reality of a party that betrayed every single promise made and caved to domestic financial and global financial and political interests.
Not just the “austerity” countries of southern Europe but the entire continent is struggling for new leadership that breaks away from representing the finance capital. Some voters have drifted to the far right. However, as the election results demonstrated in France, the Marine Le Pen’s National Front came in third because the political pendulum has shifted so far to the right that the traditional conservatives have embraced a segment of the extreme right wing agenda. On the left, voters cannot go to the bankrupt Communist parties because the memory of a failed Soviet bloc remains too close and the majority of the people want to maintain the crumbs they have under the existing political economy rather than risk a new social order.
Despite its NAZI past revealing itself in financial, economic and political hegemony under a conservative-led coalition government, Germany has managed to dilute if not efface national sovereignty in the EU because capitalists of all countries see greater benefits accruing to them under the patron-client model than under national capitalism that Russia is pursuing. In short, the fear of isolation from the regional and global economy forces the established elites to embrace the devil they know. PODEMOS and SYRIZA come along to co-opt a segment of the population that wants reforms that include national capitalism and national sovereignty as part of the mix but not outside the framework of international capitalism. This blatant contradiction simply does not work because it is irreconcilable. The end result is that reformist parties like SYRIZA and PODEMOS opposed to neoliberal and austerity (monetarist) policies only wind up de-radicalizing the masses and marginalizing them by reinforcing the idea that the political, business and social representative of neoliberalism advocates, namely there is no choice other than what exists now because the quest for social justice is futile as it will lead to social, economic and political insecurity.
The result of SYRIZA’s betrayal of voters’ trust was that one-third of its elected parliamentary members left the party, arguing that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras betrayed the goals of national sovereignty and national capitalism in exchange for political power and benefits that accrue to him and his political supporters under crony capitalism that has always worked to the detriment of the vast majority in Greece since the nation-state was founded in 1832. Assuming it comes to power, PODEMOS will face the same dilemma as SYRIZA and in the end it will follow a similar path because the neoliberal political, business and social establishment have the ability to crush any reformist opposition. Popular grassroots movement intent on systemic reform is the only fear of the neoliberal establishment, and this is not what PODEMOS and SYRIZA represent.
The fact that we have a capitalist international order in the last five centuries is indicative that reformism has never worked to bring about systemic change. Attempts at “reform from within the system” are actually a conservative concept first introduced by the conservative British MP Edmund Burke immediately after the French Revolution. In short, those backing the existing social order argue that if the social contract is not satisfactory to a segment of the population we can have a few changes but without altering the system in which the privileged elites retain their roles. Both SYRIZA and PODEMOS have accepted the conservative definition of reformism, deluding the voters that there is hope for change when in fact structural change does not come via reforms because it never has. Having the best of all possible worlds, capitalism that entails a hierarchical society where social justice is lacking, but at the same time achieving social democracy is a glaring contradiction.
In Greece there are just 12 families that own 80% of the wealth and enjoy dominant influence in the media and political arena, there is also the role of international capitalists whose interest public policy takes into account because of IMF-EU-imposed austerity policies since 2010. In the last five years, the wealthiest people in Greece have actually become wealthier because of austerity and neoliberal policies that transferred wealth from the public sector and lower income groups to the upper class and foreign financial interests. Is the situation so different in Spain than it is in Greece? Just ten billionaires own the vast majority of the wealth, headed by Amancio Ortega worth more than $80 billion, making him richer than Bill Gates.
The massive capital concentration in Spain as well as Greece is largely the result of fiscal policies that drain income from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and transfer it to the top and from the southern EU countries to Germany and the northwest. This is a prescription for: a) unsustainable GDP growth; b) chronic high unemployment; c) low living standards and downward socioeconomic mobility; d) high debt-to-GDP levels that rises as austerity and neoliberal policies continue; and e) the inevitability of political apathy, which is exactly what the political and financial elites want, and polarization in society. This means increasingly authoritarian policies disguised under neoliberalism as democratic because people have the right to vote. SYRIZA has proved that reformism is an illusion that causes more damage to the struggle for social justice than the traditional European conservatives and Socialists embracing austerity and neoliberal policies. If it ever comes to power, PODEMOS will prove the same thing.
Greece continues to have a rising debt-to-GDP ratio because its GDP has been shrinking owing to austerity policies that have slashed consumption by about 30%, or the equivalent of the drop in GDP. The patron-client model means that Greece will be reduced to a periphery dependent semi-colony with living standards roughly equal to its Balkan neighbors, exactly as Germany demanded. Because social security benefits have dropped dramatically and the new retirement age has been raised to 67, this means labor values have dropped as well along with all asset values. The reason that foreign investors are optimistic about Spain is precisely because they see asset values continuing to drop as they are in Greece, led by labor value declines.
The failure of reformism in Greece and Spain may not necessarily lead to a rise of a genuine grassroots anti-capitalist movement under a leftist political party. On the contrary, neo-Fascism lurking about throughout the Western World has been laying the groundwork as socioeconomic conditions deteriorate and more people lose confidence in the consensus around which the parliamentary system has been built. As the mainstream conservative parties incorporate aspects of neo-Fascism, using counter-terrorism as the pretext, people would not need to gravitate to the openly neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi parties, just as the case of France demonstrated in the recent elections. The crisis of parliamentary democracy is already apparent in a number of EU countries, merely by the fact that people lack trust in any of the existing political parties and in the constitutional system as representative of the broader masses. As capitalism continues to polarize social groups, and as reformism proves that it is not more than another broken promise to voters, a segment of the population will look to ultra-right wing populist leadership for solutions, and therein rests the danger of neo-Fascism in the 21st century.
Jon Kofas is a retired university Professor from Indiana University.