While Syriza transforms itself into yet another reformist left party that, instead of fighting for a new social order is allured by the aura of power and advocates a sugar-coated version of capitalism inside a neoliberal Europe, Greece needs some imaginative economic management.
In politics, there is a huge structural gap between rhetoric and action, and, if Niccolò Machiavelli is correct, fortuna has to be tamed for the desired outcomes to be achieved. That is to say, what political leaders promise to do and what they are actually able or even willing to deliver once in power are usually poles apart, which is another way of saying that lying and deception are an integral part of politics while the nature of the times is critical for success or failure.
In this context, it is common practice for political leaders to compromise and betray the ideas and the principles they allegedly stand for once they are in power to secure political alliances, accommodate vested interests and fulfill self-serving ends. As such, political opportunism (the manipulation of economic and political variables) must be seen as an essential strategy that, unfortunately, all political actors pursue in the real world of politics.
This is not to say that there have been no exceptions. An analysis of historical experience reveals that the gap between political rhetoric and action decreases significantly in those very rare situations where there is a clear intent on the part of political actors in overthrowing the status quo and establishing a new social order. In such situations, political organizations and their leaders remain staunchly committed to their original ideas and rigidly determined to carry out their vision without compromise. (1)
In modern times, such a list would include, among others, the revolutionary parties or movements that rose to power in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949, and in Cuba in 1959. The rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933, with its racist utopia, is yet another example where the logic and the structure of a political program was turned into reality by an uncompromising, psychopathic leader.
In contemporary times, the wave of social movement organizations challenging neoliberalism in Latin America, which ushered in governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela that advocated socialization and whose leaders blocked the spread of the neoliberal consensus throughout the entire region, also deserve inclusion (along with the support of progressive forces worldwide!) in a list of political organizations whose actions appear to be in synchrony with their professed ideology of humanitarian socialism, whereby economic resources are used primarily to tackle poverty, misery, inequality and to secure a social order so freedom and self-realization are not luxuries afforded only to the rich.
The leaders of those governments did not lose their political and moral nerve once they found their way to power. While they did not “delink” from the global economy, they managed not to compromise on their fundamental beliefs or be co-opted by the system, consistently challenging capitalism and seeking to restrain its worse aspects on the one hand while fighting imperialism on the other.
The tidal shift toward Syriza has raised some serious concerns about the party’s . . . ability and willingness to confront directly the policy challenges posed by a neo-liberal Europe and carry out a radical economic program once it comes to power.
A radical organization that will soon have its rhetoric put to the test is Greece’s leftist main opposition Syriza party, formally known as the Coalition of the Radical Left. Syriza emerged as the triumphant party in European elections in Greece in May 2014 by beating the conservative ruling party of New Democracy (ND) by a margin of 3.8 percent.
Today, the margin in most polls stands anywhere between 3 and 4 points over ND (although the latest polls show that the gap between ND and Syriza is shrinking), and the next parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place January 25, 2015. The failure of a parliamentary vote to choose the country’s next president means the radical left may soon form a government in Greece.
This is an amazing development considering that, until a few years ago, Syriza was a fringe, far left-wing organization, representing so many different factions that it was impossible to tell what it actually stood for; so, rather unsurprisingly, it was an irrelevant force on the Greek political stage, and its impact on civil society was confined to the ideological attraction that it had for a small segment of the academia.
Lacking a clear and coherent ideology and being entirely void of any organizational skills, as evidenced by its failure to have any direct and noticeable effect on the nation’s working-class movement, it was undoubtedly the economic crisis that has engulfed Greece over the past five years that has propelled Syriza into top contender for power. (2)
Be that as it may, the tidal shift toward Syriza has raised some serious concerns about the party’s future politico-ideological profile and its actual intentions, including its ability and willingness to confront directly the policy challenges posed by a neo-liberal Europe and carry out a radical economic program once it comes to power.
There is indeed a legitimate fear among some on the left that Syriza will end up as yet another shameless politically opportunistic movement that took advantage of a propitious moment in history to rise to power by engaging in manipulation of public opinion and current public sentiments in a manner reminiscent of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) in the late 1970s and early 1980s under its charismatic leader Andreas Papandreou.
Syriza’s leadership has begun a process of political and ideological transformation way ahead of the party’s rise to power.
While it is indubitable that Syriza’s ideological origins, however vaguely and unspecifiably, lie somewhere in the tradition of the radical communist left (different factions within Syriza represent different traditions of the radical left), which suggests that any comparison with Pasok is highly misleading, the fact of the matter is that the Pasok of the 1970s and early 1980s carried under its arms a far more radical public agenda (e.g., socialization of the basic means of production, direct democratic interventions, exit from NATO and the European Economic Community) than anything that Syriza has ever managed to articulate and consistently promote to the public.
Of course, what happened eventually to Pasok represents nothing short of an outright betrayal of the left: just a few years after being in power, Papandreou’s Pasok completely capitulated to capitalist hegemony, reneged on its promise to take Greece out of NATO and the European Economic Community, and ended up promoting a kleptocratic capitalism on the one hand, with the party acting as a mafia intermediary, while continuing to deceive the faithful with “socialist” rhetoric on the other.
Its economic agenda includes a series of populist measures such as free electricity and heating for the poor Greek households, restoring wages, salaries and pensions to their pre-crisis levels, and a 250,000 public-job creation program.
This is not to suggest that the history of the contemporary left in Greece will repeat itself in the manner stated by Karl Marx in his brilliant analysis of the French coup of 1851, his essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” – i.e., the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, but it should not come as a total surprise if things turned out exactly that way!
For one, Syriza’s leadership has begun a process of political and ideological transformation way ahead of the party’s rise to power. In an apparent attempt to change the movement’s image from being a purely dissident, anticapitalist organization to a serious political party committed to responsible governing, the blunt radicalism of the early days of the Greek crisis – which called for an immediate rejection of the bailout terms imposed by the so-called troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a unilateral write-off of a major chunk of the debt, questioned the need for Greece to remain in the euro, proclaimed the nationalization of Greek banks and ex-public companies in strategic sectors of the economy as a necessary step in any effort to restructure the nation’s economy, and advocated a huge tax increase on the very wealthy – has given rise to a mild-mannered pragmatism in which the pursuit of political alliances (scores of former Pasok members have joined Syriza and already serve as members of parliament), the “renegotiation” of debt with the country’s creditors (which now excludes loans made from the IMF) and a firm commitment to remaining in the euro area have become the defining political principles of an alleged radical party of the left on the verge of taking power.
As for its economic agenda, which goes no further than the urgent need to end austerity but still regarded as catastrophic by bond markets, it includes a series of populist measures such as free electricity and heating for the poor Greek households, restoring wages, salaries and pensions to their pre-crisis levels, and a 250,000 public-job creation program. These measures, interestingly enough, are to be financed without increasing the deficit, according to some of Syriza’s key economic advisors who have suddenly become advocates of balanced budgets. Instead, they will be accomplished through cracking down on tax evasion and by ECB funding through the purchase of Greek government bonds.
Syriza’s shift to pragmatism is not without its own contradictions.
The party’s shift to pragmatism, under leader Alexis Tsipras, took place in opposition to calls from the so-called Left Platform led by Syriza MP Panagiotis Lafazanis (a former member of the Greek Communist Party) for a deepening and widening radicalism, which included, among other things, embarking on a direct collision course with Greece’s international creditors, an exit from the euro and nationalizing key sectors of the economy, in particular the banks. Left Platform’s preferred strategy was regarded by its proponents as crucial for increasing the support base of Syriza (the party has had trouble breaking the 30 percent barrier in spite of its growing popularity), although it was driven purely by ideological beliefs and based on purely ideological assertions.
There is not a single trace of evidence than anything but a tiny percentage of the Greek population is either ready or willing to embrace the guevarista approach toward the European Union proposed by the Left Platform or the overall, historically outdated communist-based version of radicalism that it espouses. More important, the Left Platform’s strategy, if it were to be implemented under the prevailing political conditions in Europe, (3) could result in Greece’s total isolation from the European Union (EU), assuring it’s permanent slide into a poor, backward Balkan nation, with unforeseen political consequences both on the domestic and the international front.
Politically speaking, this is an incogitable stance that Syriza’s leadership felt that it had to be rejected because it is too risky, especially since the Greek citizenry has not shown any inclination to support such audacious undertakings in the public policy sphere. In fact, the present worry of Syriza’s leadership is that even the party’s rise to power may in itself create intractable situations caused, for example, by a possible bank run.
Syriza is transforming itself into yet another reformist left party that, instead of fighting for a new social order, is allured by the aura of power and ends up advocating a sugar-coated version of capitalism inside a neoliberal Europe.
Yet, Syriza’s shift to pragmatism is not without its own contradictions. Relying on a strategy (which is really a non-strategy) that it can get Greece’s creditors to see things Syriza’s way over the issues of debt sustainability, austerity and neoliberal economic reforms (and so far the European Union has vehemently rejected talk of a new debt write-off for Greece and remains stubbornly committed to both austerity and neoliberal reforms for all the highly indebted eurozone member states) without the need to have “Plan B” under its sleeves indicates either complete naïveté on the part of its leadership or pure and simple political opportunism.
We can easily exclude naïveté because Syriza’s shift to pragmatism was made to convince as many Greek voters as possible that the party represents their best possible hope for putting an end to six years of a severe depression and regaining the country’s economic independence and even national sovereignty, both of which have been shamelessly and callously violated by the EU and the IMF.
It thus becomes rather evident that Syriza’s leadership is trying hard to shed past identities, and probably looking forward to filling the gap left on the Greek political scene by the disintegration of Pasok in the aftermath of the crisis, mainly because the socialists were seen as having played a big part in the country’s economic collapse and because of their subsequent involvement in the acceptance and enforcement of the bailout program. In practice, this means Syriza is transforming itself into yet another reformist left party that, instead of fighting for a new social order, is allured by the aura of power and ends up advocating a sugar-coated version of capitalism inside a neoliberal Europe.
Indeed, to be taken seriously in its new role, the “reformed” Syriza has sought to bolster its image as a trustworthy, reliable and responsible political force both with the non-left electorate at home (various industrialists, bankers and media tycoons have already sided with Syriza) and the world’s political and economic elite by embarking on a highly polished PR campaign: Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras has gone out of his way to meet with the who’s who of the world’s power circle, including Pope Francis, while some of the party’s “shadow ministers” have found it necessary to present their economic agenda to major fund houses and banks in London. (4)
Greece’s exit from the eurozone in 2015 will not cause havoc; in fact, Germany and the other core euro area states might welcome such an opportunity.
Syriza’s leadership may pretend not to see the flaws present in the strategy of an alleged radical party of the left, but it is fully aware that, if elected, it will be confronted with some spectacularly daunting challenges. The country is bankrupt, the debt is unmanageable, future growth prospects are bleak, neoliberalism and fiscal austerity are securely locked into place across the Eurozone, and the majority of Greek citizens remain stubbornly committed to the euro. In this context, the strategy pursued by Syriza’s leadership has the dubious distinction of being both “opportunistic” and “realistic” at the same time. It promises at one and the same time too much and too little!
Its leadership tells the Greek people what they want to hear in this dark period of debt peonage and austerity (the latest ostentatious, theatrical statement by Alexis Tsipras was that if he comes to power “the markets will dance to Syriza’s tunes!”), but it can do very little on its own to ensure delivery, especially if fortuna is not firmly on its side.
With Syriza’s strategy under Alexis Tsipras, Greece will be forced to continue with the implementation of the bailout program (the troika insists that Greece needs a new form of assistance because it faces a 2.5 billion euro funding gap for 2015) under the pretext that the government needs time to renegotiate with the creditors over the crucial issue of debt. It is also a certainty that it will face opposition from the EU chiefs, including the ECB, regarding the implementation of its economic agenda. The ECB may threaten to stop the supply of liquidity to Greek banks if Syriza does not conform with the demands of the troika, and Germany may even go so far as to bully Syriza by bringing up the “Grexit” scenario.
What Greece needs is to work out a deal with its European partners for a major reduction of the debt in exchange for a safe exit from the euro area.
In contrast to what Syriza’s leadership seems to believe – and perhaps counts on in its future negotiations with the EU chiefs – Greece’s exit from the eurozone in 2015 will not cause havoc; in fact, Germany and the other core euro area states might welcome such an opportunity.
On the other hand, the above outcomes can be taken as given and perhaps manifested in the most chaotic way possible, if the Left Platform’s strategy were to be implemented. A chaotic exit from the euro area due to unilateral actions against the creditors would transform Greece into a pariah state and leave the country with no other option but to embark eventually on a voyage toward the unknown, with the pursuit of an impossible autarchy strategy in an age of global interconnectedness as the only option. (5)
Given that the neoliberal status of today’s EU is highly unlikely to change, and that the most likely prospect is for Greece’s international creditors to keep the nation under a state of perpetual debt, what Greece needs, and perhaps some of the other highly indebted eurozone member states, is to work out a deal with its European partners for a major reduction of the debt (this is an absolute necessity since Greece’s debt to GDP ratio is simply unsustainable and a good portion of it constitutes odious debt, some which is the result of the brutal austerity measures that have been imposed on the country by the EU and the IMF) in exchange for a safe exit from the euro area. (6)
In other words, Greece must come to terms with the fact that it is unfit to be part of the current European economic integration – unless it is willing to sacrifice entire generations to the neoliberal and imperial ambitions of a German-led EU – and embark on multilateral negotiations for an orderly way out from the euro area while remaining a member of the EU (the legal aspects of this dimension are rather foggy, but it should be a politically feasible undertaking).
For this to happen, a public dialogue on debt and economic prospects must take place, which means that the role of the intellectuals and the media should be to explore and present in a non-ideological manner alternative futures rather than serving as mouthpieces of political parties. This is also not to suggest that the public in today’s liberal capitalist societies, where plutocracies and oligarchies have replaced democracy, is ready for such open-minded discussions, particularly since politics has become in the mind of most citizens a spectator sport, but what other option is there if we are to undermine neoliberal capitalism’s calamitous effect on the common good and its destructive impact on communities, individual lives, and democratic accountability?
Ways to generate sustainable wealth for community building and the enhancement of living standards must be at the core of a left political economy agenda.
In addition, a party of the so-called radical left must embark on a rethinking of social change in the 21st century by dwelling on the historical experience of international socialism (i.e., learning from past mistakes) and understanding current realities and the opportunities they provide for a sustainable economic and social order based on a balanced approach between individual wants and social needs. Strategies such as government nationalization of economic resources are in themselves outdated, inefficient, and hardly adequate for the promotion of a just and democratic social order.
For example, Germany’s state-owned banks (“Landesbanken”) were among the prime speculators and hit hard during the financial crisis of 2008. Somehow, the Greek left seems to remain magnetized by the old rhetoric of socialism and communism, unable to think outside the box. Likewise, there is never any dialogue about economic democracy and alternative ways to economic production and wealth creation, or even the realization that markets are an integral part of any modern society.
In this manner, Syriza’s economic agenda captures some of the great limitations in today’s left thinking in that it lacks originality and offers no possibilities for alternative futures. Redistributive economics should constitute only part of an economic program of the left. Ways to generate sustainable wealth for community building and the enhancement of living standards must be at the core of a left political economy agenda, which is not afraid to promote and encourage private business initiatives alongside workers’ cooperatives and an employer of last resort, instead of relying on a bureaucratic public sector to “guide” the future of the economy, to nurture a culture of rights without responsibilities and to foster mediocrity in the name of equality.
In the next few months, Greece will face some of the most critical political challenges of the last 40 years. Syriza is right now in the driver’s seat and should win the upcoming elections, although the cacophony of politics associated with the presence of so many different factions and viewpoints in its midst (individuals who seek to promote themselves rather than the party’s policy) provides no measurable assurance that there may not be a sudden turnaround in the will of the non-left voters who may feel more secure with the continuation of austerity rather than the risk of an unknown future under Syriza, which seems to wish to have the cake and eat it at the same time insofar as its strategic approach toward neoliberal Europe is concerned.
For the latter to happen, Syriza needs to tame fortuna in a manner than even Machiavelli seemed to have felt it was an impossible task, which is why, ironically enough, more often than not, he ended up using the concept in connection with virtù rather than political opportunism.
1. This may not necessarily be a positive thing if irrational beliefs, socio-political extremism and terror are the order of the day. One should also bear in mind that the regimes that emerge out of such situations rely upon an extensive network of government propaganda (not to speak of brutal violence against its opponents) to fool the citizenry that they live in prosperous and indeed “ideal” societies.
2. The debt crisis, which broke out in early 2010, has so far led to two massive “rescue” plans by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund which, thanks to brutal austerity policies and a radical fiscal consolidation program unseen in contemporary European times, resulted in a catastrophic collapse of the nation’s output (over 20 percent), massive unemployment (currently at 26 percent), widespread poverty (more than one in three Greeks live near the poverty line), total loss of fiscal autonomy and partial loss of national sovereignty, the emergence of political authoritarianism bordering on a proto-fascism, courtesy of the ruling ND-PASOK coalition, and the sale of the national patrimony into private hands.
For a discussion of the various aspects of the Greek crisis and the impact of the EU/IMF rescue plans on the economy, the polity, and its citizens, See C. J. Polychroniou, “The Tragedy of Greece as a Case Study of Neo-Imperial Pillage and the Demise of Social Europe,” Truthout, October 13, 2013; C. J. Polychroniou, “The Resurgence of Authoritarianism in Economically Beleaguered Greece: The Shaping of a Proto-Fascist State,” Truthout, November 26, 2013; and C. J. Polychroniou, “Greece: A Nation for Sale and the Death of Democracy,” Truthout, July 31, 2014.
3. Aside from Greece and the meteoric rise of Syriza and the even more important development taking place in Spain with the sudden rise of Podemos, a citizen-led political formation that is already ahead in polls less than a year after its founding, public attitudes in Europe are shifting to the right, not to the left. As the results of the European elections held in May-June 2014 demonstrate, the most significant gains were made by euroskeptic and far-right parties: among others, in the UK, the Independence Party received 27 percent of the popular vote, in France, the National Front pulled 25 percent of the vote, in Italy, the Five Star Party 21 percent, in Austria, the Freedom Party took 20 percent of the vote, and in the Netherlands, the Peoples Party won 13 percent of the vote.
4. See Madison Marriage and Kerin Hope, “Greek radical left spooks global bond investors.” The Financial Times (December 7, 2014).
5. There are some radical members of Syriza who honestly believe that Greece can leave the euro by declaring a default and then turn to help for loans from nations like Russia!