Greece and the Future of the Nation State

The solution to the Greek Crisis will not come through the national-state but through the international action of the working class.
greece flag
We’re about 7 year out now from the depths of the most recent crisis, and yet Greece continues to fester. In many ways it is the Herpes of Europe; just when it appears recovery may be at hand the painful sore breaks out again and embarrasses everyone involved.
Living half a world away, the most direct experience one has with Greece is with the media reporting on it. The mainstream press, even supposedly left leaning ones, paint Greece as being a nation of lazy moochers, living high on the hog and barely working.  This is particularly galling in America, where it’s pretty much taken for granted that none but the most secure professionals will have things like benefits, vacation time or a reasonable retirement age and that everyone must work themselves to death. Shortly after Syriza’s election I heard a tongue in cheek radio report which attempted to explain the situation by comparing the country to a millennial, lackadaisically pursuing a career in the arts and living off the largess of his all too generous family. Now, having blown through his latest installment of allowance because he was arting while he should have been working, he comes once again, hat in hand, to his stern German mother only to receive a dose of tough love. This story was heard not on some FOX affiliate, but on NPR, considered to be among the most liberal of mainstream media outlets.

The condescension of this narrative is matched only by its ubiquity in the media and surpassed only by the obscenity of the actual situation. In the years since 2008 the financial crisis has morphed into a humanitarian crisis. Welfare benefits were slashed just as unemployment stretched above 25%. People in Greece are literally starving to death. This malnutrition isn’t extant because there isn’t enough food. Hunger rears its head again in Greece because financiers insist on recouping every last penny of their foolish investments. The Banks and titans of finance have the IMF, World Bank and other organs of international capitalism as their muscle. They’ve been holding Greece upside down by the ankles for the last five years, shaking them to see if maybe a few more pennies might fall out of a pocket. For those few pennies they are content to allow Greeks to (again, literally) starve. Meanwhile the Bourgeois media paints this vicious austerity as a kind of “Tough love.”

Rarely mentioned is that the bailout money doesn’t actually go to Greece. It goes to the institutional investors who were all too willing to make what every one now seems to agree was a stupid investment in Greek bonds. There was a time when it was accepted that if you made a stupid investment it was only fair that you take a loss. Now sufficiently large investors get to take entire countries, indeed entire continents, hostage until they recoup their investment and then some. Meanwhile, having adhered to the bailout program Greece is actually more indebted than ever, their bonds more widely held. The situation won’t be resolved until a portion of Greece’s debt is written off, but the more indebted they become the more painful the inevitable default will be for everyone.

The humanitarian crisis has in turn lead to a political crisis. The two main parties, the rough equivalent of America’s Democrats and Republicans, have collapsed. The Greek people, finding that their choices are austerity administered by Social Democrats or austerity administered by Conservatives, deserted both en mass. In to the vacuum stepped previously fringe parties, inflated by said deserters. The most terrifying of these  parties is the Golden Dawn, an explicitly Neo-Nazi party which engages in much the same activities of their brown shirted forebears and did startlingly well in parliamentary elections. The election of Syriza has hopefully exorcised this particular fascist demon for now, but it’s not yet been able to exorcise the demonic force which gave rise to it; the mass suffering caused by austerity. Until their misery is alleviated, Greeks will be vulnerable to all manner of xenophobic hucksterism, whether it’s The Golden Dawn or some other gang of thugs. Unfortunately Syriza, no matter how well intentioned, will not be able to end that suffering on its own.

The truth is that most nation states have very little control over their actual economic policy. Unless you are a first tier market like the US, Germany or China any controls on capital are pretty easily circumvented. Capitalism has also gone self consciously internationalist. The IMF, World Bank, WTO,  so called “Free Trade” acts(which are really about promoting the interests of institutional investors) and the consolidation of the Euro zone all give Capital supra-national power and coordination. Workers organization on the other hand remained stubbornly national in character. Indeed, unions and parties tried to tie themselves even closer to “The Nation” even as Corporations shed whatever loyalty they may have had to their home base.

This creates strange bed fellows as leftists upset with austerity ally themselves with xenophobes upset with the nation’s apparent loss of power. Thus Syriza finds what politicians have already known for centuries; nationalism makes a convenient political cudgel. Syriza used this cudgel to form an alliance with a right wing, anti-immigrant party, and will undoubtedly use it to try to consolidate its domestic popularity generally. Meanwhile attempts to buttress the flagging autonomy of the state will be halfheartedly thrown up, and no one will be surprised when they inevitably backfire. Any clear headed observer should know by now that global integration is not a trend that will be reversed. The question is not whether we’ll have globalization, but rather what kind of globalization will it be.

When Syriza attempts to defy Capital it does so in isolation, while Capital can bring literally a world of pressure to bear on Greece. To the extent Russia could conceivably pursue “socialism in one country” at all, it was precisely because it was so large and so isolated from the outside world. This is not the case for Greece. Syriza’s strategy for ending austerity was basically to ask the Troika to end austerity then grumble and shrug when they refused. However if there was a movement in Europe, especially Germany, with which Syriza was able and willing to coordinate than perhaps some concessions could have been won. Thus the situation in Greece shows the necessity of internationalism in achieving even the most modest of reforms.

That nation states increasingly have little control over actual economic policy and function more and more as coercive administrative bodies implementing decisions made elsewhere has become clear. Markets have always undermined the ability of rulers to control their economies. What’s changed is not just the extent to which this is true, but also that it’s a consciously cultivated outcome. It begs important questions. If states don’t control their own economic policy than in what sense can they be thought of as sovereign? After all questions of taxation and expenditure have traditionally made up the meat and potatoes of politics for millennia. structural adjustment programs and EU bailout packages take these decisions out of the hands of national governments.

A more important question for socialists, whose concerns are fundamentally economic, to ask is what purpose does seizing state power serve? In most places a largely symbolic one, since their economic decisions will be effectively vetoed by international capitalism. There are those who fetishize the nation state form and will uselessly try to reverse its inevitable loss of power, but we know better, or at least we ought to by now. The nation state is not the natural mode of political organization, nor is it even a particularly desirable one. It’s simply a familiar one, but we’re not interested in supporting the devil we know. National states may remain coercive and administrative organs carrying out decisions made elsewhere, so why would we want to coop them? Hasn’t our long term goal been their abolition anyway? Why would we want to prop them up now? Either way there’s not much point in contesting state power because it’s not where the future lies. Instead the working class needs to find new means of building and exercising power, ones not based on outmoded political forms. These means will have to be figured out but first and foremost they’ll have to be effective, and to be effective they have to be international. The question is not whether we’ll have international integration but what form will it take. The fighting organizations of Capital have gone international. It’s time for the working class to fight internationally as well.

1 thought on “Greece and the Future of the Nation State

  1. “Rarely mentioned is that the bailout money doesn’t actually go to Greece. It goes to the institutional investors who were all too willing to make what every one now seems to agree was a stupid investment in Greek bonds. ”

    No, that’s not correct, almost all the private and non-official institutional investors were bought out in the previous bailout measures– taking a bit of a haircut in the process. The bailout money under the provisions of the 2012 Memorandum goes to the Greek government upon review by and the satisfaction of the troika representatives.

    The debt is held by the European Commission of EU governments (with Germany subscribing to and underwriting the single largest amount); the ECB; and the IMF.

    Syriza assuming the government in order to preserve capitalism is not quite the same as a workers movement seizing state power in order to liquidate the local expressions of capitalism. The revolution clearly cannot succeed when confined to a national arena, but it cannot afford to ignore that arena and not abolish, materially, capitalism in that arena.


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