From Sydney to Athens, the old left is out of ideas

The result of the Greek referendum surprised many: elections fought in the shadow of financial crises are usually won by the champions of ‘sound finance’. The first great example was 1896 in the United States when voters rallied to the gold standard and the Republicans, who stood against the Democrats’ populist advocacy of free silver and price inflation. The most famous Australian example was the June 1932 New South Wales election that followed the May 1932 dismissal of Jack Lang’s Labor government. In office, Lang’s government had suspended payment of public debt owed to British banks.

The Greek victory – provisional and temporary as it appears to have been – reminds us that the history of the old left was often one of defeat.

New South Wales in the 1930s and Greece today share similarities. Both were small political units on the fringes of a larger political unit: European Union and the British Empire. Their membership of this larger union made them more attractive to investors. Both cases also reveal that imperialism is mostly about debt – it is usually much simpler for the metropolis to extract surplus value by debt interest than the messy business of actually operating capitalist enterprise in the periphery. This extraction requires the compliance of the local state as the agent of creditors. Sometimes the iron hand of imperialism is required to enforce this compliance but in a federation such as 1930s Australia or the contemporary European Union there are simpler means. Capitalism requires a state to uphold property rights but finance capitalism requires much more. It requires a state that will act a lender of last resort if there is a collapse of confidence in a banking system. The Global Financial Crisis confirmed that any bank can require a bailout if confidence is lost.

Lang led Labor to a landslide victory in October 1930 on a platform of the maintenance of living standards. The turning point in Labor’s political fortunes came with the April 1931 collapse of the NSW Government Savings Bank.

Greece today is in in a stronger financial position than NSW in 1931. The Greek budget is in surplus for one thing. In 1931, NSW, as well as other states, were not in a position to sustain their operations without support from banks. But Greece faces the problem that it has no local lender of last resort to sustain its local banks against growing panic. The European Central Bank will only provide this support on the condition of government acquiescence in austerity. Indeed, NSW faced a similar situation back then: the Commonwealth Bank refused to offer support to stem the panic run on the Government Savings Bank; the point was to punish NSW for its suspension of payment on overseas debt.

Bank runs such as these are aggregates of individual, seemingly rational decisions. Similar to the individualised act of voting, they represent what Jean-Paul Sartre called the serial group, where people act as individuals rather than a collectively aware and fused group. It is not surprising that elections in financial crisis tend to see voters choosing conservatism.

And yet, Greek voters said no, particularly the younger voters. Lang, on the other hand, was defeated in a 1932 landslide. Neoliberals have often criticised southern European populism as favouring native-born public sector baby boomers at the expense of the young and of immigrants, yet in Greece pensioners were one of the few groups to vote Yes.

Greek voters were able to construct a Sartean fused group – something the left has failed to do in the past. Mostly, when the old left confronted capitalist crisis, it failed. Lang’s fighting defeat inspired millions as did the 1980s battles of the British left against Thatcherism, but in the cold light of day their political failure paved the way for modernisers; the NSW Labor right of the 1940s and Blairism in the 1990s.

These case studies suggest that the prospects for success of the contemporary left depend on rejecting the legacy of the past; that is, labourism, populism, Stalinism, of which Greece and Australia have seen far too much. As Richard Yeselson has argued, ‘we must look to the long 1960s, rather than to the long nineteenth century, to inspire the next age of anti-acquiescence’.


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