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Humans of SOAS: Professor Costas Lapavitsas

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By Juan Ignacio Rubio Gorrochategui , MSc Environment, Politics and Development

Costas Lapavitsas is a professor of Economics at the eponymous department at SOAS, a former MP in Greece for the socialist party Syriza and one of the leading voices lending support for Brexit among the British left. Juan Gorrochategui talks to him about the state of modern capitalism and the ways the left can become a motor for change again.

I want to talk  about your recent article on Tribune about Covid-19 and capitalism. I found it very easy to understand, but I have a couple of questions about it. As you wrote, the nation state has taken a central role in the crisis. Do you think it was inevitable this would happen in the next chronic crisis of capitalism, even if the virus had not been involved?

History happens and events happen, and what has happened is that the state has intervened in ways that are unthinkable. When you look at the trajectory of the state over the last decade, you will see evidence of state intervention that was unprecedented [in order to deal with the downturn that occurred after the 2008 crisis], which was not a sudden event. But on the other hand COVID-19 was a unique historical event, which forced the state to shut down entire sectors of the economy. There are structural elements but also unique historical contingent levels.

‘The state catalysed the crisis and made it worse.’

You comment that the virus affected economic structures massively. Can you elaborate on the specifics of it?

The decade that followed the 2008 crisis was of weak growth and weak performance in finance, both in low income and developed countries. The system did not have solid foundations. Thus, the virus fell on a weak system, and the state, by intervening in the economy in ways unthinkable before, created new dynamics and scenarios. Why did it do so? Because the state is very weak, and in fact the ways in which it has intervened have not been particularly helpful for the poor. I am talking of measures such as guaranteed sick pay, providing financial stability for those who need to self-isolate and primary healthcare. It did not have the capacity to do that, states were unprepared. Instead, they chose lockdown. States combined this with relying on big business to find the vaccine, which created a massive economic problem as it disturbed supply chains across the world and caused disturbance in aggregate demand. The state catalysed the crisis and made it worse, paradoxically out of both weakness and authoritarian impulses.

Is that a consequence of decades of the social net being hollowed out by neoliberalism?

There is no doubt about it. When it mattered, states showed enormous strength, nationalising the wage bill and income statements and using central banks to provide liquidity. This crisis shows that the nation state is enormously powerful and globalised capitalism parasites it. At the same time and as commented before, the state is weak. It is a very peculiar combination. Both authoritarian, but also unable to stand up to big business.

Do you think that now outside the EU, the UK will be able to reform along lines that go beyond the current neoliberal dogma? Are the ingredients there?

The ingredients are there. Brexit indicated that working people in this country had had enough. Obviously at some points there was confusion, but the interpretation is clear: they wanted change, and they still do. The situation in the country is bad, and the pandemic has only made it worse. That is the importance of Brexit, it is a break for change. The problem has been the Left. The political current that historically spoke for change has forgotten how to do it, and has lost its organic connections with the working classes. The Labour Party does not speak for them.

Would you say the Labour Party is not up for the task in this challenge?

The Labour Party is trying its best to make a bad situation appalling. In this leadership I do not see political skill or talent, and the way they behaved towards Jeremy Corbyn is appalling. The reason why they lost the election is because they refused to listen to the working classes and their desire for Brexit. It is astonishing. I have no illusions about the party, but historically they have done everything to win elections. Except for last time! The reason for that is because they failed to take a brave position and go for Brexit.

To finish off, if not Labour, what is left?

The lesson I have learned after many years in this country is that Labour has deep roots and deep organic links with the British working classes. At the moment it is a shambles, but that does not mean it is finished or that it is time to create a rival left organisation. I have been there and that does not work. The task right now is being involved in the struggles and debates within the party, because that is where the working classes still look to. The change that British people are seeking at the moment will come from there.

Photo caption: Professor Costas Lapavitsas (Credit: Kevin Walsh, Flickr).

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