The Syriza Effect

It’s being called an earthquake. It’s being heralded by right-wing parties as a revolutionary mandate. And, in typically American terms, it’s being read as a ‘protest’ vote, that will evaporate when it comes time to return to national politics. However, there’s no arguing that the European Union elections, which took place May 22nd-26th, profoundly shook Europe’s political elites. For the first time since 1968, they feel profoundly vulnerable.

The English-language press narrative is otherwise correct: neo-Nazi, leftist and anti-European Union (‘Eurosceptic’) parties made great strides in the election. For those of us outside the EU (this writer included) one of the main questions their success raises is whether the vote was more about ideology than it was about the EU: a return to pre-WWII anti-democratic politics, or an end to European unification. The answer is not entirely clear.

It depends on who you ask. For European voters, the answer was relative. Turnout showed a slight uptick, but remained low, at 43%, though some countries saw greater numbers flock to the polls than others. Still, it is impossible to separate low turnout from the high importance many attached to the elections. Inspired by six years of unrelenting crisis, a good many Europeans feel that the economic situation is out of their hands. Why vote, if the European Commission will do as it pleases? It’s no wonder that so many view the EU as undemocratic.

But it seems equally telling that Greece, the country hit the hardest by the economic crisis, selected the leftist Syriza coalition by a majority. The fascist Golden Dawn also did well for itself, gathering more than 9% of the vote, (a clear improvement from its performance in 2012 municipal Greek elections, but this may well have reflected lower turnout more than voter preference.) However, Syriza brought in nearly three times that total.

Greeks have more reason to be angry about the state of their economy, than any other EU member state. Few countries in the union have come to be as pilloried, in the European press, for its corruption, and its mismanagement of its finances. Few, also, have suffered as dramatically, from Brussels-directed restructuring, in exchange for bailouts. Indeed, Greece has been the poster-child for the forced transition to a more market-based economy, typical of the neoliberal ‘reforms’ demanded by the Troika, in exchange for being rescued from its stereotypically southern European profligacy.

Neo-fascist election poster. Brussels, May 10th.
Neofascist election adverts. Brussels, May 10th.

This also explains why Greece has evolved a serious, leftwing political party, in the form of Syriza, that is viewed as credible, by the Greek people, and performs increasingly well at the polls. Syriza may very well be the basis for a new kind of leftwing party that succeeds the corrupt, center-left social democratic parties across Europe, that are currently being rejected by voters in countries like France, in favor of populist and nationalist parties, like the National Front.

That should tell progressive forces around the world a great deal. Syriza is more than just a left political organization. It has truly revolutionary elements in its ideology, which are, at the same time, not inimicable to parliamentary politics.

The inability of EU member states to independently manage their own monetary policies was always understood as being a heavy price to pay for the creation of the eurozone. But there were supposed to be compensatory benefits, especially in terms of stability. Certainly, Greece and Spain, and other afflicted countries in Europe are not seeing those, despite having received big bailouts. Hence the significant support accorded to Syriza, and in Spain, the Socialist Party, who came in second place, in last week’s vote.

Still, it not does not make immediate sense what the relationship is between European monetary policy and the general philosophy behind the European Union. Is it a technocratic exercise, or a political one? To its founders, the EU was meant to foster harmony on a continent that had been horribly torn by war in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now, many are concerned that it is stoking the fires of fascism again, by being a platform for Anglo-American inspired austerity policies and privatization programs.

A united Europe is something that seems to me still worth saving. But in order to do that, it will have to address the political significance of monetary unification, and how that plays itself out socially. One of the foremost of those is that Europeans are finding out what austerity means, and they don’t like it. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has routinely imposed austerity programs as a condition of its financial support in other parts of the world, but while the Greek government was willing to accept those terms (as most governments do), faced with the loss of essential public services, the Greek people do not.

Leftist election flyers. Saint Gilles.
Leftist election flyers, Saint Gilles.

Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, gave voice to this dissatisfaction in his victory speech. “The message is that the disastrous policy of austerity must be terminated. All European nations must invest in democracy, growth, social cohesion and solidarity,” Tsipras said.

That statement reveals Tsipras as a reformer, rather than an EU rejectionist. Indeed, the Syriza platform is extremely idealistic and supports a version of European unity more consonant with ‘big government’. But the nature of the coalition which constitutes Syriza (which ranges from left to radical left and a very broad swath of progressive ideologies, from Trotskyism, environmentalism, to social democracy) gives the party sufficient pragmatism to work in the EU Parliament, while pursuing its more idealistic goals.

Tsipras’ statement reflects his response to those who would ask how, without traditional austerity requirements, Syriza would address such dramatic economic difficulties. He is clearly advocating a collective responsibility, where “all of Europe” pools its resources for the good of the continent. That sounds like anathema to neoliberal ears, but is it really all that different from farm subsidies to the auto industry bailout, in the Midwestern US? After all, the economic crises that afflicted the region impacted the whole country.

More broadly, we are led to the question of alternatives to IMF assisted EU bailouts, and the most obvious answer is the success of Iceland in managing its financial crisis. Iceland is now largely recovered. It has experienced two years of economic growth and it has started to move to ease restrictions it created to deal with the collapse of its banking sector. It managed this, while also finding ways to pay down a good deal of its debt, yet also maintaining a lot of its social safety net and ensuring that the populace felt the effects of the recovery from the beginning. It’s a good place to draw some inspiration from.

But Iceland also has some conditions that will make it difficult for other European countries to replicate its success. The most obvious of these is that Iceland never joined the eurozone, so it had monetary independence. Thus, when the banks collapsed, so did the Icelandic krona. That was a part of the crisis, but a weak currency also boosts exports, providing a way for businesses to begin to recover. Weak currency also allows some flexibility in debt management, permitting Iceland to reduce its arrears and give aid in kroner to its own people, while using its foreign reserves to deal with its international obligations.

Iceland was also willing to do several things that would be much more difficult, or even impossible for other countries. One was its willingness to prosecute, try, and convict bankers and government officials who, through either incompetence or corruption helped to cause the problem. That is a big step for countries that continue to be guided by the idea that the rich must be treated differently. But in Iceland, it allowed the people to really buy into what the government was going to do and made the cuts they inevitably had to suffer palatable. Imagine how different the US political landscape would look if such actions (rather than window dressing) were taken in response to the financial crisis here in 2008.

Iceland also has a small population which, even today, is much more homogeneous than most. There is more internal cohesion in Iceland than most of Europe as a result. The government was able to capitalize on this and gain popular acquiescence for its programs by striving to maintain the social safety net as much as possible and by being willing to put off the demands of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—much more powerful countries, obviously – for faster repayment of their debts, though eventually, settlements were reached. Iceland managed that balancing act and was able to issue strict capital flow controls while rebuilding its economy. Those controls are now being gradually eased as Iceland emerges ready to rejoin the global economy more fully.

None of this is easy to replicate in other places, but it speaks to the Syriza position of collective European effort. Of course, it is one thing to convince Greeks of that. It is another to convince the Germans, or even the French, of the viability of such an idea.

But there should be a real impetus for this, and it comes back to the rise of the neofascist right, to which so much attention is currently being paid. The alternative to a more cooperative, egalitarian vision is either a strengthening of the same financial and political system that caused the global crisis from which the EU has still not recovered, or a rejection of the entire concept of Europe, from the right.

Greece demonstrates that leftist, and broadly collectivist options remain viable and can appeal to voters, at a time of disenchantment with social democratic parties. The issue is that the center-left is correctly perceived as being in bed with the banks. Syriza’s triumph epitomizes everything that France’s socialists, with their distinctly pro-market program, gets so wrong about what the European public wants from a leftist party.

Without an approach like Syriza, right-wing parties will continue to fill the left-wing void, as they are already doing, and promote nationalist, anti-democratic politics, of the sort identified with France’s National Front. The public’s attraction to that, as though it were a proxy for left-wing politics, attests to the gravity of the situation. What we need are more parties like Syriza, throughout Europe, not just in Greece, to take class issues back from the populists and recast them in purely progressive terms, emphasizing social justice and equality. Without such initiative, we can only fear for the worst. That’s the lesson of the 2014 European elections.


Photographs courtesy of Joanna and Joel Schalit

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