fifth column

Nothing is better than love: how not to repeat Weimar in Greece

By Benedict Seymour, 27 October 2012
Image: Read this book!

The following is a commentary on Paul Mason's important but flawed article on the situation in Greece:

Paul Mason's recent reports on the rise of the Golden Dawn have been very interesting. The latest ends by proposing that a hopeless and resigned Greece now faces a choice between 'love or nothing' - and he takes this piece of graffiti, daubed on a wall in Athens, as summing up both the retreat into the self currently taking place in a Weimar-like Greece, and the possibility for a return to resistance against rising reactionary forces.

But for all its power, there seems to be something wrong with this article. Mason maintains the illusion that a centrist response to the crisis - some deferral and/or role back of austerity - would arrest the process of social contraction and fragmentation he describes. This seems to precisely miss the lesson of Weimar and - like the protagonist of 'Death in Samarkand' whose attempts to evade mortality lead him straight to his fate - Mason's analysis, if influential, would hasten the repetition of a Weimar-like denouement in Greece.

The reason the Nazis came to power wasn't simply the conscious complicity of factions of the ruling class (eg trying to keep down the left or hold on to power, trying to use the Nazis but keep them in check etc) but rather lies in the larger economic contradiction that made ordinary political and market forms of exchange impossible for capital at that point in time - and again today.

The sclerosis of democracy and of exchange was necessary for the value destruction compelled by overaccumulation crisis and emerged from the impossibility of maintaining German capital without systematically suspending and cannibalising the institutions of bourgeois democracy and capital accumulation. As Sohn-Rethel's great but too little known The Economy & Class Structure of German Fascism makes clear, the Nazis could solve the problem of an economy too productive for its own (private, capitalist) forms and relations of production. Their rise is about this, in the final analysis, not a failure of love or a surfeit of nothing. Nothing if not over-abundance lies at the origin of the Nazis appearance.

Rather than a fateful error arising from the jockeying of more centrist political agents, the Nazis' victory was assured and sustained because capital needed their kind of idiots to pursue its (at that time) necessary kind of survival-through-suicide. It needed a party who could preside over the systematic evisceration of social reproduction, restructure the domestic economy so the poor were on sub-subsistence rations and redirect production increasingly into unproductive activities, culminating in the rise of a military economy. The Nazis were all about wasting constant and variable capital - things and people - on an expanding scale, which then as today was what the continued accumulation of capital dictated.

We see something indeed similar - and vaster - going on globally and in Greece right now. One would scarcely guess this from Mason's piece, informative though it is about some of the surface details and the wider mood in Greece. Sohn-Rethel's book on the Nazi economy would be more useful reading right now than the Weill opera Mason discusses.

Mason's narrative obscures the fact that, horrible though the Golden Dawn are, they are outdone by and dependent on the centrists in power for their increasing influence, as well as the less obvious reality that Syriza could not improve the situation if they were to come into office. The lesson of Weimar to be recalled from historical amnesia is that capital - not any particular congerie of capitalists - dictates the end of democracy, and that whether in technocratic or Nazi form it means the continuing and deepening destruction of social reproduction in a state - or states - facing the effects of a crisis of overaccumulation. Zizek is right to warn of a future of globalised authoritarianism, but there is nothing essentially 'Asian' about this, it is rather the mode of operations necessitated by a global crisis of over-productivity. Democracy may not unassisted be able to facilitate the scale of destruction required by capital which is why everywhere democracy is in various stages of advanced decomposition - from the technocrats down to the open fascists, all are part of a wider suspension of whatever limits to capitalist destruction the political process was once able to pose. The UK is clearly just as 'hopelessly' beyond political salvation as Greece, but we like to focus on what's going down overseas to take our minds off the profound paralysis of politics here - that is its necessary and not contingent 'hopelessness' as an answer to anything.

Mason is thus, in Greece, finding fuel to feed the disavowal apparatus of the UK left. We like to load up on pathos and indignation overseas before rallying everyone for another (really) hopeless march for work, to warn about the fascist menace while doing exactly what one must do if one wants to keep people attached enough to the voting box to vote the fascists in when their time comes.

The lesson missed in this article is that the devalorisation presided over by the Nazis in Germany would have been no less horrific had it been undertaken by well intentioned centrists or socialists. And elsewhere it was just such parties that did preside over it - all the way through to militarisation and war (principally but not exclusively the UK and USA). Today, any ruling party or coalition would find itself pursuing the same policy, whether under a rhetoric of austerity of reflation - 'a future that work's or 'we're all in this together' - and all have already shown what their attitude is to migrants.

The fact the Golden Dawn are not more powerful stems from the fact that capital is able to impose its objectives adequately through centrists and technocrats in this instance, so far at least. Perhaps the Golden Dawn are right that if Syriza win the next election they will win the one after that, but all this should illustrate the nullity of the political process as a site of struggle, its utility only in deflecting residual - or emerging - popular anger. Rather than becoming hypnotised by the newest personification of radical evil on the block we should keep in view the systemic nature of the evil now in process.

As one of the commenters on Mason's article notes, the IMF are no doubt happy to see attention focused onto the far right. They need this kind of bugbear, as much as the Golden Dawn and the centrists need the bugbear of migrants. It's yet another scam, a political derivative if you like, ensuring that the underlying bogusness of all parties' claims is not exposed. Politics and its defenders such as Mason imply that to want nothing, none of them, is nihilism, anomie, and hopelessness. But Mason misses the critical issue which it could conceivably be of some use to diffuse to Greeks and others facing a similar trajectory across Europe. That is, that capital - not any particular representative thereof - made the segue from Weimar to Hitler necessary, and today capital makes the looting and social contraction in Greece necessary. The different factions were and remain all secretly compact in sharing the need to obfuscate the material basis of the crisis, the material role of the State as agent of capital and enforcer of its dictats.

Thus as Sohn Rethel shows us, the left wing of capital was never in any serious danger of stopping the rise of fascism in the 30s, and its representatives, like ours, were far too much the creatures of the wider project of devalorisation. The same goes for 'left wing' institutions such as the TUC in the UK, as in 1926 so in 2012. Their role is not to challenge the imperatives of capital but to legitimate them in the eyes of workers. Mason's heartfelt evocation of hopelessness is pretty hopeless itself in the absence of a more accurate account of the (a- or anti-)political options.

Poignant as it might be to do so, Greeks should not put their faith in 'love or nothing' - but in solidarity with the people of the rest of the world now undergoing their own particular versions of the same global process of strangulation. It is irresponsible of leftists to describe a 'hopeless' situation so helplessly without talking about the real possibility and need for a collective response that goes beyond national boundaries. Mason focuses on (Greek) politics and misses the key role of the ECB and IMF; the way that the imperatives of a US-centred capital are being pushed through in Greece and elsewhere, and thus he also misses the possible trajectories for any hope whatsoever. That is, for solidarity between the PIGS, a pan-PIGS, pan-european and indeed global movement against capital - not any particular set of its representatives, all of whom are right now collectively dedicated to our destruction, whether they know or say so or not.

This massive assault is no doubt not resistable through the electoral process, anymore than it was in the 30s in Germany. As Sohn-Rethel pointed out, every time the bourgeoisie got to the brink of ousting Hitler they lost their momentum, the secret confirmation that the deadlock they found themselves in had its proper expression in the Nazis. If the Nazis did not exist they would have to (re)invent them within months of reclaiming control of the state, for the state and capital could not be reproduced without the destruction of workers' conditions, wages, and lives. And yes, war too had its own logic in due course, going beyond the aims of any particular capitalist state but serving that supremely internationalist thing, capital, in effecting a necessary wiping out of capital values. So much value had to be destroyed in order to maintain value as the social form of wealth.

Again Sohn-Rethel makes plain the teleology of capital at work here, rather than playing along, as Mason does, with the pathos of political failure and electoral tussles. The lesson of Syriza is also missed - that the elections are a part of the movement of 'hopelessness'. A lack of hope for Syriza or any other political alternatives would indeed be far more hopeful than the kind of hope that - returning once again wide-eyed to the ballot box – gets Nazis elected. The only hope, one might say, lies in NOTHING, not love. That is, it lies in seeing that electoral solutions and economic reforms are indeed good for nothing in an epochal capitalist crisis. While those holding out for a political solution call this position 'nihilism' it is in fact really the form assumed by something - precisely by hope - in a system of utter nihilism, of which politics is a critical component.

Unfortunately, Mason's is a (non-)reproduction of late Weimar aesthetics, turning Weill's lines into a declaration of resignation when they could be read, instead, as an intuition of the possibility that lies in giving up on salvation through the political process: "All this can be a beginning / And though time turns our day back to night /Yet the hours of dark will lead onwards / To the dawning of glorious light." 

Even allowing for the constraints imposed on free speech by the BBC, Mason's analysis seems to exemplify the position of the leftist critic today - repeating the errors of the past precisely by evoking the lessons of history. The potentially dialectical image which flashes up when one looks at contemporary Greece through the optic of Weimar Germany is here (non-)reproduced as social democratic blinders. We need to see beyond 'love or nothing' to the reality that collective power lies beyond or outside the electoral process now. Nothing will come of that nothing, but together and against it we can be really something, at last.

Of course, as recent struggles in Quebec have shown, elected governments can still pass legislation that is more or less reactionary, and under pressure they can be driven toward the light (and away from the Golden Dawn). But in Greece, as in so many - most? - other states today, such a struggle through and alongside formal politics is not possible. This is no abstract statement of anarchist or liberatarian principle, to be clear, but merely a recognition of the real limits to reform globally posed by a global crisis.