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12 February 2012
FROM EPICURUS TO KARATZAFERIS
Что делать? What is to be done? That is, of course, the trillion dollar question.
We are referring here to the current global political situation.
We are also considering the question, as always, from a committed leftwing viewpoint.
There are three options, it seems to us.
1. The first possibility is to do nothing. If nothing can be achieved, then it is pointless to engage in politics.
The atomist philosopher Epicurus of Samos (341-270 BC) took this route. The classical Greek world of the “polis” or city-state, in which all citizens (but not slaves) had a voice in the conduct of public affairs, gave way to the Macedonian Empire in 338 BC when Epicurus was still a child and that too was swept away after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, when the Empire fissured into a trio of separate states. How was the individual to attune himself to the new cosmopolis in which he had no political importance (unlike in the old days of the “polis”)? Epicurus’s answer was to keep out of politics and “cultivate one’s garden”, by which he meant that one should cultivate one’s intellect, pursuing happiness through self-control, self-denial and remaining calm in the face of life’s vicissitudes. Voltaire (1694-1778) reprised the advice to “cultivate one’s garden” at the end of his 1759 satire Candide.
In practice, most people do precisely that. Most people leave politics to the politicians and get on with their day-to-day life. We are busy enough as it is, they say. Let us leave politics to the professionals. In a way, who can blame them? Particularly, if they have learned from experience that anything they say or do will be ignored by the powers that be.
However, it is precisely this passivity that allows the ruling elite to enjoy their unfettered domination of political life.
2. The second possibility is for the people to revolt and oust their rulers. But this approach too has a number of obvious drawbacks.
The ruling class will stop at nothing to suppress revolt. Regardless of which country it is, the army, the police and the judiciary will, in the last resort, show no mercy towards the rebels. Consider the situation in Syria or Egypt today. The Alawi minority led by Bashar al-Assad is using his army to butcher opponents from the Sunni majority. In Egypt, slightly more subtly, the army is using mainly the police (assisted by masked goons) and the judiciary to stifle dissent. In the Financial Times of 11/12 February 2012, Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, author of best-seller The Yacoubian Building, said “the Mubarak regime is still in power”. But you don’t have to go to the turbulent Middle East to witness the brutal reprisals that face anyone who threatens the status quo. The riots in London last summer, when hundreds of penniless out-of-work young people broke into local shops and “liberated” cheap goods, such as trainers or bottles of water, provoked vicious prison sentences from an establishment judiciary hell-bent on snuffing out any developments in the English capital that might conceivably metamorphose into something resembling the Arab Spring: Trafalgar Square, they were determined, would not become Tahrir Square.
Even if contestation is, more or less, tolerated by the authorities for a time, as happened last year in the case of the “indignados”, who built a tent city in Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square, it will eventually be repressed by the police, often in dawn raids, as ultimately happened in Spain. The same fate has befallen the “Occupy” protesters who have occupied public space in many countries worldwide to highlight the disparity between the poor and relatively poor 99% of the population and the mega-rich 1%. A court in London recently paved the way for the forced removal of an “Occupy” camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral.
A successful revolt usually requires immense organisation and years of preparation. Radicals in Russia had been attempting to topple the imperial autocracy for a hundred years before the successful rebellion in October 1917. The recent revolts in the Arab world have constituted spontaneous outbursts of popular anger. They have lacked the organisation that might have enabled them to topple the tyrants. The same is true, but even more so, in the case of the “indignados” and supporters of the “Occupy” movements. It has been easy, as a result, for governments to ignore them and such movements are unlikely, in our view, to have any lasting impact. These protests were sparked by vague aspirations to a more equitable society. They failed, however, either to formulate a list of specific demands or to devise a specific strategy for prising concessions from the authorities. Nor did they strike up alliances with other potentially dissident groups, such as the trade unions (much weakened though these are in today’s globalised world).
3. The third option is to try and win power through the ballot box.
However, (see https://antigone1984.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/what-would-gandhi-have-said/) we have argued comprehensively in this blog that, in our view at least, this is pointless given the political duopoly in place: in western social democracies power almost invariably passes between two differently named but ideologically indistinguishable political parties. Moreover, the left is especially hampered when campaigning since one of the two parties that alternates in power is a so-called socialist party yet whose ideology and policies differ hardly a jot from those of its conservative rival. Nonetheless, many voters are bound to be taken in by socialist campaign slogans that bear no relationship to the party’s real ideology.
The situation is even worse in the United States where huge amounts of money are a sine qua non of election campaigns based on advertising. The electoral system in the US is a bi-party plutocracy.
Another problem is leftwing splittism. The left is split into a myriad different groups and parties. These must necessarily devise a common platform and form a united front if they are to have a hope in hell of winning any conventional election.
THE GERMAN BOOT
In view of what we have just said, Antigone1984, is extremely pessimistic about the possibility of a successful breakthrough for the left in the foreseeable future.
There is some hope, perhaps, in Latin America. Hugo Chávez may hang on to power in the presidential elections in October 2012. Bolivia has moved leftwards under President Evo Morales, likewise Ecuador (Rafael Correa), Peru (Ollanta Humala) and Paraguay (Fernando Lugo). The situation in Argentina is interesting too under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Europe has moved dramatically to the right in recent years. Rightwing liberal or conservative parties currently either form the government or participate in it in 22 of the 27 member states of the European Union. The so-called Socialist Party under François Hollande is likely to oust the current rightwing President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections in France this spring, but nothing earth-shattering will happen as a result: tweedledum will replace tweedledee.
The most promising country for the left at present is Greece. Greece is undoubtedly in a pre-revolutionary situation and anything could happen. The Greeks are suffering a savage decline in their living standards as a result of cutbacks imposed by Brussels, at Germany’s insistence, with a view to reducing the country’s deficit and entitling it to panhandle for a bail-out from the European Union. The standing of the country’s parliamentarians is at an all-time low as a result of their failure to stand up to German demands. Elections are expected this April in Greece, which could give a massive opportunity to less established parties on the left or right.
The rightwing party Laos is already benefiting from this swing away from the two main parties: the rightwing New Democracy party under Antonis Samaras and the supposedly left-leaning Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) party under George Papandreou. According to the Financial Times this weekend ( 11/12 February 2012), Mr George Karatzaferis, the leader of Laos, has blamed Germany for trampling on the countries of the southern Mediterranean. “We were robbed of our dignity, we were humiliated. I can’t take this. I won’t allow it,” he is quoted as saying, adding that Greece “could do without the German boot”.
However, there has been no sign as yet that the left has got its act together. There have been countless marches and demonstrations but nothing has changed as a result. The two main parties have simply ignored the protests. It is to be wondered whether the left in Greece is sufficiently flexible and organised to form a strong United Front in time for the expected elections in the spring.
Great observation. Indeed, spontaneous movements, like the Occupy and the Los Indignados, have faced the limits of its potentials when confronted with greater state violence. There is, as Lenin proposes in What is To be Done, indeed a need for more discipline and organization and less of the “leaderlessness” and fetish for “horizontality” and “direct action” that has characterized these movements in recent months/