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Greece’s Revolutionary Moment

Which side will gain the upper hand?

Graffiti along side shops in Central Athens. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)

How do you know when you are in a country that is experiencing a Revolutionary moment?

There is mass unemployment; high numbers of people are radicalized either in the Left (Communists, socialists, anarchists) or Right (fascist, neo-Nazis). Modest poverty that seeks to still disguise itself somewhat is widespread to the point where it can no longer disguise itself as convincingly. There is massive graffiti throughout the city, not merely in certain neighborhoods, but in the downtown area next to luxurious shops. The police do not enter certain neighborhoods, while it stands guard outside of them. Tents of protesters can be seen in parts of the city. People walk into cafes, trying to sell things. Others pass by and ask for a few coins.

All this applies in Greece. I am in Athens now.

At the same time, cafes and restaurants are still busy with people, even if they spend hours on one cup of coffee. Groups of tourists come and go in perfect safety. The Greeks love tourists and know how to treat them well. The calm around the Acropolis gives one the impression that all is perfect and that no storm is about to emerge.

However, locals in cafes I spoke to told me how in past years their earnings have gone down. Prices went up. Everything is expensive. Life is not easy.

When they look backwards and around, all they see is national debt and austerity. When they look ahead, they see the same.

The time that is ripe for a Revolutionary change is when there is no other choice. When all the other paths have been tried. One is nervous. The known has been explored and tried and resulted in declining wages and debt. The new path provides a risk. It is about taking a leap into a new direction. It is about breaking the rules, trying something different, disobeying authority. Which path must one take?

A Greek woman explained to me how Greece must follow the rules. Obey. Stay on the austerity plan for another 6 months rather than have new elections now.

I asked her what will she gain by waiting 6 months? It is clear that debt and austerity have been the hallmark of life in Greece. The debt is not going anywhere. It is too big to close.

She thought about it. Then, after a while, she responded cautiously: well, if the situation will not improve in 6 months time, and it is clear that there is no hope, then I will go for the new now. There is nothing to lose. The status-quo has become so difficult that I am willing to take a risk, even if it means that things will get worse. It is a small risk, but it is a risk nevertheless.

The Revolutionary moment is when one is with his back against the wall. When the situation is such that one is forced to choose a different path, or pretend to bury one’s head in the sand, believing that the failed policy will somehow work, even after it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not.

Is Greece undergoing revolutionary moment? It is not Havana in 1958 where masses are beating down cops who represent the regime, but it is getting there. There is tension in the air. The calm is deceptive. A single incident can ignite everything. Moments of outbursts, scenes of protesters with the police have occurred in past years and may happen again. For now, there is calm. That is because the elections are fast approaching on January 25, and people are waiting to see what will happen.

SYRIZA, a party composed of various parties from the center-left to the radical left, that proposes a new way to Greece is about to become the largest party in parliament with about 140-145 seats in a parliament of 300. This will be the first time a Left with a radical message will win the elections.

At the same time, the fascist Golden Dawn is predicted to become the third largest party in the parliament.

SYRIZA headquarters. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)SYRIZA headquarters. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)

SYRIZA is not a social-democratic party that in fact serves a neoliberal agenda. It was George Papandreou, the social-democratic prime minister of Greece in 2009, who introduced austerity to Greece after his government declared, immediately after winning the elections, that Greece’s annual deficit, at 12.7% of its GDP, was four times more than the level allowed by the EU and that its public debt totaled over $400 billion. He went on to increase taxes, cut government spending and enact austerity. Massive protests followed. In 2010, Papandreou signed on to a massive 110 billion euro bailout with the IMF and EU that was to last for three years. As austerity was enacted, people’s life conditions deteriorated. Mass protests on an immense scale followed, with people demanding his resignation in 2011.

Papandreou wanted to hold a popular referendum on a EU bailout for Greece, but the idea was opposed both by the EU and by the public. An attempt to form a national-unity government with the Conservatives failed, and Papandreou resigned, while a unity government of the social-democratic PASOK, the Conservative New Democracy and Popular Orthodox Rally Party ensued. The new government assumed the EU bailout plan approved by Papandreou, over the head of the public which was never given a chance to vote on it. EU dictates over-rode the will of the Greek people. Leftist SYRIZA and Communist KKE refused to join the government.

It was therefore a social-democratic party that carried out neo-liberal policies commanded by the Troika (The European Union, IMF and the European Central Bank) and enacted austerity – which did not improve the lives of the Greek people but introduced an immense debt. People’s economic conditions have largely deteriorated since then.

Antonis Samaras of the Conservative New Democracy Party, went on to become the Prime Minister of Greece in June 2012.

With the social-democratic prime minister enacting austerity and cutting public spending and the public sector, and a conservative prime minister continuing the same policy, the status-quo options have been exhausted. The space has been opened for an alternative.

SYRIZA is unique in that it combines several parties under its wing. It calls for free electricity, universal healthcare, subsidies for food and rent and cancelling debts for people who cannot pay. SYRIZA’s response to the current predicament, is to call for meeting people’s most basic needs – therefore placing people at the highest priority, whereas the Troika place profit and finance as the highest priority, leading to an inevitable clash. For critics of SRYIZA, the question is how SYRIZA will fund its enormous program, but for critics of neoliberalism, the question is how the demands from Brussels and Berlin make sense on the most practical level when they mean that the country will continue to be in debt and experience a decline in the quality of life, no matter what.

What will happen in the day after and what does SYRIZA propose?

SYRIZA wants to renegotiate the debt on radical terms, because otherwise, Greece will remain stuck in the cycle of borrowing and with an ever-larger debt that never seems to end.

Protest by anti-fascists, commemorating two years to the murder of Pakistani immigrant Sahzat Luqman, who was stabbed by two members of the fascist Golden Dawn party. The party is expected to become the third or fourth largest party in parliament. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)Protest by anti-fascists, commemorating two years to the murder of Pakistani immigrant Sahzat Luqman, who was stabbed by two members of the fascist Golden Dawn party. The party is expected to become the third or fourth largest party in parliament. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)

The Conservative and incumbent party, New Democracy, is countering SYRIZA’s platform and stands in exact opposition to it. New Democracy argues that there is no choice, Greece must follow the Troika’s plan until the end. The Greeks must practice good citizenship and carry out their financial obligations as required by the debt agreements. New Democracy also argues, in what appears to be a display of blind faith that is unrealistic, that in several years the plan will bear fruit and Greece will no longer need to borrow. New Democracy argued the same in the elections two years ago, promising a future end point of a year or two to the debt, yet that did not happen. Antonis Samaras of New Democracy won the elections and became the prime minister, but his promise never materialized.

What will SYRIZA do after it gets elected? The Troika had already said that SYRIZA’s plans are irresponsible, not implementable and out of the question.

Which side will gain the upper hand?

Tspiras says that Greece will remain in the EU, but that the debt will be negotiated. He may have said this to ease concerns and has other plans, but most Greek people are reported to prefer to stay in the EU and he probably shares this view. Can the Troika agree to his demands?

Activists writing political graffiti on walls, neighborhood of Petralona. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)Activists writing political graffiti on walls, neighborhood of Petralona. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)

Several scenarios are possible.

The first is that the Troika will place immense pressure on SYRIZA and the party will agree to a compromise within the limits set by the Troika. That will mean that SYRIZA will accept the neoliberal logic and betray its platform and its voters. If that happens, the voters are very likely to rebel, especially after so much hope was placed in the party, and chaos will ensue, leading to an unpredictable outcome. For this reason, SYRIZA may be forced to hold its ground due to pressure from below, precisely in a country where unemployment among the young is 50% and among adults is 25%. It will not be able to wholly surrender to the Troika.

The second possibility is that SYRIZA will in fact insist on policies that will help the people of Greece, but will reach a compromise with the Troika on some issues. A mixed result will ensue. This will require immense flexibility on both sides. It also means that for the Troika, the cost of a Greekexit must be more expensive than supporting SYRIZA’s social policies. This is a very possible scenario. Greece remains in the EU, but a compromise is reached so that major social programs are enacted. Most people in the country support this. On the surface, both camps have an interest in such an outcome. However, the SYRIZA-led government and the Troika speak from opposing logics. The Greek government is pressured by its voters and has social programs in mind and an alternative economic order whereas the Troika wants a financial return and policy triumph. With such extreme poles coming into confrontation, both sides will have to adapt significantly, and it is not clear that either party can afford to do so due to the constrains and pressures faced by each. This, in turn, leads us to third option.

SYRIZA will hold its ground and demand radical adjustments of the debt and money for social spending. The Troika will not accept. Greece pulls out of the Euro, and probably the EU also, and due to the dire economic conditions on the ground, is forced to develop a new economic model that will work for the people, outside of the reigning neoliberal economic fundamentalism.

No one knows what Tspiras really has in mind or how he plans to achieve his goals. He will have political power commensurate to his majority, and many in his party are ideologically on the radical left. He may have a complicated strategy for executing his plans.

What is certain is that in a country with massive unemployment, immense debt, failure of orthodox economic dogmas, and ever-deteriorating economic conditions – the push from below will be strong. If SYRIZA betrays its voters a revolt from below is inevitable.

In his book, The Ordeal of Change, American writer Eric Hoffer sheds light on when social change happens. Change does not happen when people see no way out of their predicament. When people are overwhelmed by troubles, they do not rebel. They accept their fate, as they see no alternative. When people’s conditions slightly improve, when people lift up their heads from their miserable condition and see that another world as possible, that is when social change takes place and immense forces of anger and frustration break out.

If SYRIZA turns against its voters and provides them more of the same after it promised a new future, people will revolt.

The Greek people had a social-democratic prime minister who brought them austerity. They had a conservative prime minister who tells them that they must be good citizens and pay their dues, even though their economic situation is not improving and is showing no signs of improvement. If the left – a SYRIZA-led government – tells the people that the same austerity will continue and their condition will not be improved, they will revolt.

Uprising will not only take place from the left. The fascist force Golden Dawn, which enjoys wide support among parts of the police, is significant. If SYRIZA fails, then the right will gain power, most likely with a government where the far-right will be well represented.

The outcome of this revolt cannot be determined now. But more of the same by SYRIZA means that all major political parties will have been given a chance and failed, while people struggle to survive on a daily basis. Outsiders may think that the Greeks went wild by voting for SYRIZA, but their conditions leave them with few other options.

The elections take place this coming Sunday.The young, students, unemployed, workers for the public sector are voting for SYRIZA. They do not know how the party will carry out its promises, but they have nothing to lose.

Protest by anti-fascists, commemorating two years to the murder of Pakistani immigrant Sahzat Luqman, who was stabbed by two members of the fascist Golden Dawn party. The party is expected to become the third or fourth largest party in parliament. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)Protest by anti-fascists, commemorating two years to the murder of Pakistani immigrant Sahzat Luqman, who was stabbed by two members of the fascist Golden Dawn party. The party is expected to become the third or fourth largest party in parliament. (Photo: Joshua Tartakovsky)

The eldery, many of those employed in the private sector and the middle-class are voting for New Democracy. Some believe the propaganda coming from the right that a SYRIZA victory may mean that homes will be expropriated as in Cuba after the revolution. Middle-class voters are afraid that in a SYRIZA victory, the banks will collapse.

The nature of the social plans benefiting society offered by SYRIZA are radically different from the logic by which the Troika operates. SYRIZA’s Tspiras says he will enlarge the public sector and decrease the taxes for most people while the debt is immense. The technocrats in Brussels and Berlin, are writhing in their seats when they heard about SYRIZA’s plans. They must be thinking that SYRIZA is a populist party that has no intention to carry out its plans once elected.

New Democracy has continued its campaign of fear against a SYRIZA victory, yet recently it overplayed its hand. Many people are having enough of its message of fear and of what will happen if SYRIZA will win. Many are thinking: so, let it be. What do we have to lose? We prefer the message of hope offered by SYRIZA.

SYRIZA is poised to win with a promise of major social reforms.

But in the day after, a government that won a majority will come to the Troika asking to renegotiate an economic bailout that the Greek people never approved. It is likely that negotiations will get nowhere. The logic of neoliberalism and austerity cannot possibly truly accommodate a logic that place humanity first. There will be a confrontation between a proud Left party and a Troika used to referring to the South with contempt. The gap of values, conditions and pressures is very wide.

If SYRIZA manages to hold its ground and provide a new economic model, that will send vibrations throughout Europe and the world at large.

If SYRIZA fails in a significant way, and Greece has more of the same austerity and debt – then it may be replaced by a fascist right.

Greece is at a revolutionary moment.