Now that Syriza has prevailed in the Greek elections, a new field of battle has emerged: the political maneuvering before debt-relief negotiations. Syriza’s decisive victory is sending some richly deserved shock waves through the citadels of finance capital and their partners in government, especially in Europe.
Not since the 2008 financial crisis have neoliberal policies and politicians suffered such a stinging public rebuke – through democratic elections, no less. The financial establishment and leading politicians around the world want nothing more than to staunch the damage. They clearly wish to isolate the new prime minister and undermine his party’s leadership. They would also love to kill in the cradle many socially minded initiatives that Syriza plans (protections against home foreclosures, restoration of pensions, basic healthcare, etc.).
Hence the fierce media propaganda war now underway to defame Syriza and lock in a negative set of images and ideas about it. I keep hearing the term “radical left” a lot (funny, the press never called austerity politics a program of the “radical right”). British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned, “The Greek election will increase economic uncertainty across Europe” – as if that hasn’t been the case for years.
There are also many attacks on the coalition government as unprincipled and expedient, particularly after Syriza made a coalition government with ANEL (a conservative party whose acronym translates as “independent Greeks”). ANEL is socially conservative but it is also extremely hostile to big capital and the current banking system. It is more radical than Syriza in that it wants to nationalize banks and throw out the Greek oligarchy.
I thought it was telling, in its account of the elections, that the New York Times gave the last word to the neoliberal Peterson Institute for International Economics. A fellow there counseled Greece to move to the political center because “it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules.” Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse. Very, very quickly.”
“Play by the rules,” “face reality” – or things will get “a lot worse.” Worse than the slow-motion social disintegration that austerity is already imposing on the Greeks? Such advice is darkly humorous in light of the rule-breaking, reality-defying audacity of banks, financial institutions and investors.
Still, such fear campaigns have to be taken seriously. We remember what happened when the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvatore Allende, did not conform to the expectations of international capital in 1973. This is serious stuff. Nowadays governments have learned to handle such perils in a more decorous fashion – through draconian, secretly negotiated international treaties, non-democratic central bank actions and sweetheart legislation enacted by compliant or corrupt members of parliament. Much cleaner politically.
The lesson today is the same one that the 2008 meltdown taught: in the end, citizens and democracy are the junior partners in this enterprise known as “democratic capitalism.” Investors and creditors have their privileges, their trump cards and reliable political proxies. That's what is being mobilized now against the Greeks.
We saw this sort of mobilization of political clout a few days ago before the Greek election. The European Central Bank used "quantitative easing" lending in an attempt to sway Greek voters, according to Corporate Europe Observatory:
“The EU bureaucratic elite is very much part of the game in Greece. Already at the first hint of an upcoming general election, the EU Commission President Juncker lashed out at Syriza, saying he thought ‘the Greeks – who have a very difficult life – know very well what a wrong election result would mean for Greece and the eurozone,’ warning against “extreme forces.” And the power of the ECB has been unashamedly applied in a way that doesn’t quite square with its mandate. A case in point is its quantitative easing, the massive injection of capital to the tune of 1.1 trillion euro decided yesterday [January 22] by the ECB, in that its timing and design could be seen as in part an attempt to influence the outcome of the Greek elections.”
The website went to note that Syriza wants to cancel at least half of the Greek debt, especially debt to the Eurozone and the ECB: “These are promises that are hard to go back on… as they strike to the core of the humanitarian crisis in Greece. This crisis moreover, will not be relieved in the slightest by the new program of quantitative easing, but only via some sort of rollback or outright deletion of the Troika austerity programs. Clearly the ECB has chosen its design and timing for its quantitative easing program in a manner that is intended to be helpful to the party currently in power in Greece, the conservative New Democracy, as it fights an election this weekend.”
So if the pre-election manipulations were bad, the coming collision between European creditors and the Syriza government will likely be even more intense. The Greek government has some serious chips of its own to play, however, most notably its commanding election victory and the legitimacy that it confers. Greece could conceivably leave or threaten to leave the Eurozone, too, a move that would be very bad news for investors. In a bit of bravado, Syriza has even called attention to the fact that Germany has never repaid the money that it “borrowed” from Greece during the Nazi occupation during WWII.
Needless to say, the guardians of the “Washington consensus” are not eager for Greece to prevail and set a “bad example” that others might emulate. A successful Syriza might inspire oppressed taxpayers and jobless citizens in Spain, Italy, Ireland, the US and elsewhere to fight the crushing anti-social costs and unfairness of austerity politics. Occupy could happen again, but with a new determination not to be fooled again.
It is hard for most of us to imagine the hardships that the Greeks have endured – the massive unemployment, extensive privatization of public assets, loss of public services, corrupt policymaking and dire everyday need. Over 400 new laws were rushed through the Greek parliament over the past four years, including many drawn up by the Troika -- the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. It has now become virtually illegal for public sector workers to go on strike because it would threaten growth and risk state mobilization of citizens. Such a threat was made against teachers who threatened to go on strike.
So the attacks on Syriza are really about much more than Syriza – they are about preserving the international policies and neoliberal political system for the benefit of investors and lenders. They are about nipping in the bud any sustained or contagious populist insurgencies.
That’s why it is critical, in the coming media wars, that there be strong international solidarity with Syriza and the difficult challenges that it faces in inventing a new, more socially constructive successor to neoliberalism. Governments in the US, UK, Germany and elsewhere need to realize that their hardball tactics toward Greece will have domestic political costs -- because, after all, Greece was simply in the vanguard of what the rest of us could well face.
Greek commentator Akis Gavriilidis writes that the real reason that Syriza is so feared and reviled by international capital and neoliberal governments is that the party is engineering an “epistemological break” with the history of the Greek Left:
“It breaks a long tradition – perhaps the only tradition – of the Greek left: the conception of separateness, the concept of the ‘fortress party,’ as the only possible form of leftist politics. Up to now, this politics had almost exclusively organized itself on the founding principles of unity and purity, and considered ‘pluralism’ as an insidious weapon used by bourgeois ideology in order to undermine and bring discord in our ‘camp.’ Now it is the first time when somebody tries to abandon uniqueness (or duality, which is practically its synonym) and work with multiplicity as a means to increase their strength and bring about a transformative and emancipatory effect.”
Gavriililis suggests that the Greek left may be following “the essential lesson of Asian martial arts: the good strategist is not the one who crushes the enemy’s forces, but the one who uses them in his/her own favor.”
Updates: Here is a well-produced independent video documentary, directed by Theopi Skarlatos, about the last 23 days of the Greece election campaign, with an emphasis on Syriza.
For English-language news about the Greek situation for global readers, check out the Press Project.