SYRIZA, Take Two

SYRIZA solidarity demo. Berlin, February 2015.

Few ruling parties have their legacies written and the successes and failures declared in less than a month’s time in power, but left-wing critics have decided there are new rules for SYRIZA, the radical left coalition elected in Greece at the end of January.

That’s in part because of the time table the indebted country was working under. The clock was ticking with its creditors —the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank—and the new government needed to make quick action on its promises to end the austerity measures imposed by the institutions formerly known collectively as the Troika.

SYRIZA, after just a fortnight and a half in power, got played. With a tiny country with limited leverage against the economic behemoths to which it owes billions of euros, even Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and his negotiating prowess couldn’t help SYRIZA’s hand. The ECB, IMF and Commission made minor concessions, such as lowering the benchmarks for surplus growth, but in essence was able to grant bailout extensions on its terms. Austerity, as we know it, remains.

Clearly, the new government is trying to buy time in order to make its next move at the April deadline, although that hasn’t stopped the leftist purist cries of “I told you so,” which comes with the insistence that authentic revolutionary action only happens in the shadows, not the halls of power; never mind the fact that SYRIZA has moved to shutter the country’s shameful immigrant detention centers, a huge victory against institutional racism. Those sticking with SYRIZA are looking at this in terms of long-term strategy. Of course Greece couldn’t walk out of the Eurozone right then and there, they say. The government needs more time to get its ducks in row.

Given the intransigence of the northern creditor nations, scrapping austerity all but requires leaving the Eurozone and returning to the drachma, partly because this gives the government the ability to default and not have to live by rules imposed from outside but also so it can devalue its own currency, a powerful tool for an indebted country. It would also, as many leftists see it, be a poor country’s public rejection of the perceived neoliberal consensus of the European experiment.

Communist Party flyers, Athens.
“Don’t trust SYRIZA.” Communist Party flyers, Athens.

SYRIZA’s biggest left critic, the Communist Party (KKE), demands a break from the European Union entirely. In a 2012 interview, KKE parliamentarian Liana Kanelli dismissed the premise of the union, saying “It’s trying to merge different economies, different geopolitical interests, different sizes. You’ve got first class Europe and second, North and South, Eurozone and non-Eurozone—come on! It’s killing gains for the working class. It pays no attention to human life.”

SYRIZA anti-racism festival. Athens, 2012.
SYRIZA anti-racism festival. Athens, 2012.

Perhaps SYRIZA has balked at exiting in part because while a “Grexit” might be the best option for everyone in the long-term it would initially involve chaos and instability, and more importantly, it’s not something Greeks are demanding. And there’s reason for caution. As Antonis Davanellos of Greece’s Internationalist Workers Left wrote in 2012, a devalued currency could harm “everything that is important to wage-earners (their wages, pensions, housing, etc.) and also farmers (the value of cultivable land),” while the “capitalists—who would retain over 600 billion euros deposited abroad, more than twice the sum of the Greek debt—would be able to grab for just pennies public enterprises, hospitals, land and more.”

That means SYRIZA’s weak spot isn’t at the negotiating table with its creditors, but in the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki; the creditors must know that Varoufakis, for all his bravado, represents actual hordes of people ready to move. So that means the party has until April to organize at home, which will complement the measures it has offered to the Eurogroup.

That widely circulated letter contains some positive measures on collecting more taxes from the rich and ending endemic corruption, but still weakens union power with, as it said to the Eurogroup, an “approach to collective wage bargaining that balances the needs for flexibility with fairness,” which to many unionists sounds ominous. Also: the plan allows for completed privatizations to go untouched, while those underway can be reviewed. Meanwhile, Energy Minister Panagiotis Lafanzanis has vowed against privatization of the energy sector.

More than that, March and April have to be about reframing this issue as not just Athens against Berlin and Brussels, but of a transnational struggle between workers, students, small business operators and retirees against oligarchs, regardless of what’s on their passports. The so-called northern Eurocrats are in line with the Greek conservatives who ran the government until this year. Albert Scharenberg, the co-director of the New York City chapter of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a think tank closely associated with Die Linke, SYRIZA’s German sister party, noted that there needed to be more pressure on the German Social Democratic Party, currently sitting in coalition with Angel Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, to support Greece.

“The task is increased pressure on the government,” he said in a phone interview. “This creates opportunities to bring into the public discourse that doesn’t buy into this whole narrative of ‘the Greeks are lazy and don’t deserve it.’ We have a counter-narrative that concentrates on the humanitarian perspective, a sane economic perspective. This debt is never going to be paid, it’s an open secret. So how are we going to deal with it?”


Photographs courtesy of Uwe Hiksch, and the author. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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