From Resistance to Hegemony

Since the 2008 financial crisis, Greek society has been devastated by economic austerity. The crisis, however, has inspired ordinary people to support each other. The creative activity in the streets is often ignored by the focus on the betrayal of the Syriza coalition, which gave into the European Union (EU) “troika” demands (the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund, and European Commission) in 2015. In his article, “From Resistance to Hegemony: The Struggle Against Austerity and the Need for a New Historical Bloc,” Panagiotis Sotiris attempts to theorize the ongoing struggles in the street. He proposes that they may be able to create a path toward power that doesn’t rely on electoral coalitions that are locked into austerity imposed by the troika.

Sotiris begins his article by describing the crisis in the EU. He mentions that the countries that entered the EU agreed to the rules of the Maastricht Treaty of 1991, which requires monetary and fiscal obligations to use the Euro currency. The problem, however, is that this process was not accompanied by a deeper economic union involving democratic participation in budget-making. Because of imbalances in competitiveness and exports between European Union countries, such as Germany’s wage freeze during the early 2000s, the Greek economy was under pressure. Eventually when the 2008 financial crisis occurred and creditors came knocking, the economy collapsed.

Sotiris cites statistics such as the current unemployment rate of 27% and nearly 60% youth unemployment rate as evidence of the crisis. At the same time, the EU troika demands that Greece impose further cuts to public services and raise taxes, popularly known as “austerity,” to “balance the budget.” The result is further social devastation, and what has been described by many academics and policy makers as a transparently punitive regime. According to Sotiris, the EU no longer tries to ideologically justify its policies. Instead, it engages in what he calls “an aggressive disciplinary attempt toward a novel form of neoliberal social engineering.”

Still, the crisis’s overwhelming nature has also provoked an equally energetic response from people. In his article, Sotiris focuses on popular struggles. To address the “hegemonic crisis,” Sotiris re-theorizes Gramsci’s famous concept of the “historical bloc.” He writes:

Historical bloc does not refer to the formation of an electoral alliance or to the various social strata and movements fighting side by side. It refers to the emergence of a different configuration within civil society, namely to the emergence, on a broad scale, of a different forms of politics, different forms of organization, alternative discourses and narratives, that materialize the ability for society to be organized and administrated in a different way.

Generally, we assume a historical bloc refers to the alliance of classes in parliamentary coalitions that govern society. In contrast, Sotiris redefines the historical bloc as the forms of struggle that directly transform the nature and composition of class forces; for example, workers interacting with students, landless people with slum dwellers, and so on. These changes include new forms of organization such as workers’ councils, neighbourhood councils, and so on, which bring different groups into direct contact with each other, thus transforming their class identity as part of a bloc.

Sotiris says a new Greek historical bloc is manifest both in the re-composition of the “subaltern” and middle classes, and their strategies of resistance. First, the downwardly mobile middle classes can no longer sustain expectations of jobs and other opportunities, even if they get an education. This is obvious from the high unemployment among youth. Sotiris argues that in this sense the younger generation now overlaps in its class expectations with the working class, many of whom have similarly lost steady jobs. Second, however, Greeks are responding by creating networks of reciprocity, such as helping neighbours.

At the same time, the new forms of resistance these changes entail will not be effective unless they are accompanied by an explicit politics of rupture with the EU. Sotiris challenges the pan-Europeanist Left to think about what breaking with the EU means. While Syriza led by Tsipras argued that they would challenge the EU creditors’ demands, their desire to remain in the EU means they underestimated the intransigence of its institutions; what Sotiris refers to as “embedded neoliberalism.” At the same time, the populist far right has gained from the left’s unwillingness to think seriously about the question of sovereignty, instead promoting a rabidly nationalist vision of the state.

Ultimately, as Sotiris puts it, “some degree of self-sufficiency, decentralization and locality are indispensable aspects of any potentially socialist policy.” In contrast to much of the neoliberal rhetoric about the inevitability of globalization, Sotiris calls for “de-linking.” Experiments in local democracy will only be effective if they are accompanied by a decisive break with the EU and its institutions. Responses may include “extra-legal” means, such as disobeying EU treaties. The need to openly disobey the EU is where Syriza’s strategy to govern electorally has reached its limit.

Sotiris writes, “There would be a necessary asymmetry between real political power (in large part in the hands of the bourgeoisie) and governmental power, an asymmetry that can be only countered by forms of popular [power] from below.” Toward this end, he echoes much of what Gramsci previously emphasized during the period between the World Wars: the argument that the working class can’t simply occupy the bourgeois institutions of state, but must inevitably transform them. There is no way for a left party to govern and formulate policy without decisively breaking with the intercalation of the EU’s rules in the Greek state, thereby creating space for popular alternatives.

Neoliberalism on the Ground in Sri Lanka

While Sri Lanka is not part of a regional fiscal or monetary union like the EU, it remains highly integrated into the global economy and dependent on foreign exchange to pay for imports. Lately there has been a squeeze on the balance of payments. Fears of a “debt crisis” have been sparked by the previous Rajapaksa regime’s massive borrowings for mega infrastructure projects such as Hambantota port.

The current government wishes to auction a majority stake in the port to China on a 99-year lease to recoup the losses. It also claims many loss-making State Owned Enterprises must be reformed into “Public Private Partnerships.” Creeping privatization is now on the agenda to transform Sri Lankan society in line with the expectations of creditors and global institutions, especially the IMF.

Considering the current controversy around the South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM), a flashpoint in the debate over the role of private institutions in the education sector, in our discussion we talked about how student struggle epitomizes Sotiris’s proposal for a new historical bloc.

The Inter University Student Federation (IUSF), Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), and other groups have come out against SAITM, arguing that the government must close it down or incorporate it into the public education system because it has failed to meet standards set by the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC). At the same time, many commentators argue that SAITM is an alternative for students who can’t enter the public system. They complain that the GMOA operates a “closed shop,” turning education into a privilege rather than a right.

In the resulting confusion, the mainstream debate often fails to directly acknowledge the growing commodification of education. Thus, the principled reason to oppose SAITM is not to limit students’ choice but to protect public education from the invisible private takeover of the sector. In our discussion, we argued that the difference between the IUSF and GMOA is not so much their basic demand (opposition to SAITM), but their strategies to achieve different goals.

The GMOA could rightly be criticized for acting like a cartel, but the massive demonstration of popular support for students in the street protests is evidence of a more pervasive fear that allowing SAITM to operate will weaken public education. While the Federation of University Teachers’ Association’s (FUTA) demand for “6% of GDP” for education has not been implemented, the IUSF and other student actors continue to try and defend the right to public education in principle and in practice.

Nevertheless, we questioned the student movement’s over-emphasis on protest, neglecting proactive initiatives to create spaces for popular education. For example, if a section of students agreed to create an organization that provides free classes to people based on voluntary support, they could push for the state to legally recognize the alternative curriculum in the form of licensing and degrees. If the state won’t create more opportunities for public education by increasing the budget for education, then it is up to the students to create such a space.

Simply protesting without experimenting further in local democracy could over time alienate people, including workers, who might otherwise be sympathetic to the struggle. Potential educational initiatives could push back against the individualizing discourse of “job training” characteristic of much of the pro-SAITM rhetoric, in addition to challenging the bureaucracy to create a space for empowering people to participate in their own education.

Just as Sotiris redefines the meaning of the historical bloc, Sri Lankan students must become part of a new historical bloc that includes manpower workers struggling for secure jobs and dispossessed northerners’ fighting for return of their land. Explicitly theorizing this bloc could attribute a different meaning and character to these struggles, based on their integration into a popular movement that directly challenges the government’s neoliberal policy.

17th February 2017