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Syriza’s Dead End: Greece’s Debt and the Elections

Syriza and its supporters committed to an electoral path of change. When that path failed, Greeks were already demobilized.

A Greek woman casts her ballot in a voting box during the 2014 Greek elections in Thessaloniki, Greece, on May 25, 2014. Turnout for the 2015 elections plummeted by comparison, with a 45 percent abstention rate. (Photo: Ververidis Vasilis /

As I walked by Athens’ Omonia Square in late September, I passed groups of men waiting to get on buses. Most had backpacks, and were speaking Syrian Arabic. They were refugees from the ongoing dirty war raging to Greece’s east. They were traveling north, away from their Greek point-of-landing, to the wealthier European Union states, such as Sweden, Germany and Norway. Those countries all have the means to comfortably accommodate the refugees in a way Greece does not.

To some degree many European countries suffer from a combination of debt, a desiccated economy, a hollowed-out productive base and an opposition that opposes nothing, rallying under the worn and useless banner of social democracy. But Europe’s crises converge on Greece with piquant sharpness. Those crises are the predictable outcome of the policies of German big capital, and have reduced a once-prosperous country to penury.

Amid that poverty, mass uprisings shook the country from 2008 to 2012. But the attempts of social democratic parties to arrive at a pro-European Union, anti-austerity accommodation with monopoly capital have ended in failure, tranquilizing the population with despair.

Between crisis and palsied political reaction, the lower and middle classes are now overwhelmed, exhausted, impoverished and desperate. Such layers are, in the main, too tired to continue resisting aggressive austerity programs.

“There is not a single member of parliament that would actually support anti-government strike action or movement.”

Technically, Syriza won the September 20 elections – the third round this year. But it was a quiet victory. Most crucial was the historic degree of abstention: 45 percent. Combined with blank ballots, which went from .5 percent in the January elections to 2.5 percent in these elections, disengagement from the political process is the dominant note. The level of non-participation ought to be assessed in the aftermath of both Syriza’s victory on a pro-EU, mildly socially democratic platform in January, and its subsequent and rapid retreat.

The final moment of that retreat was Syriza’s acceptance of the surrender terms for a third memorandum of understanding between Greece and the European Commission. According to that memorandum, Syriza’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, committed Greece to a wide array of political and economic reforms, many of them anti-worker and pro-capital. These reforms were the precise opposite of the progressive and pro-worker Thessaloniki program upon which the Greek people had elected Syriza. But Tsipras felt he had to push the memorandum of understanding through, having no other option. In the words of Romaric Godin, “this capitulation has proved that voting cannot change the economic conditions of the country. In such conditions, what good is voting?”

Syriza’s victory was a wan one. Despite coming in first, the party lost votes. The fascist Golden Dawn came in third, with an increase in its support from the previous elections. The Communist Party, or KKE, held steady in its parliamentary representation, receiving 15 seats, with a slight decline in votes. The break-off from Syriza, Popular Unity, failed to win a seat, coming 8,000 votes short of the parliamentary threshold.

I spoke to Panagiotis Sotiris, a member of Popular Unity, in the aftermath of their defeat.

“We have a pro-memorandum dominated parliament,” he said, “with the exception of the Communist Party.” Outside of them, “there is not a single member of parliament that would actually support anti-government strike action or movement.”

“The crisis is structural; the outcome is the debt crisis.”

He explained that Syriza, the coalition many of the Popular Unity candidates had been members of in the months leading up to its capitulation, “is going to be the party that is going to implement very harsh measures of austerity.” He added that it effectively “dictated the terms of the political debate.” The debate “was no longer if we want a memorandum or not.” Instead, “the main topic of the political debate was who will manage the memo as an inescapable reality.”

In so many words, Syriza neutralized the Greek opposition, with the exception of KKE and PAME, the All Workers Militant Front.

As the Spanish political analyst Manolo Monereo observes, “Syriza built up the hope of a people, and reconciled democracy with justice, with the rights of the majority, with the sovereignty of the country. Today, this political force has been normalized, domesticated and converted into the left hand of those who give orders, and are not present in the elections.” That is, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank. And behind them, the United States.

Alongside this faith in fool’s gold, when the object of their hope was revealed as false, Syriza had nothing to offer its supporters. It was neither interested in nor capable of fighting. Newly shifting social layers – which had slipped loose from previous sure and stable arrangements and loyalties, and been attracted to Syriza’s radical, anti-austerity rhetoric – had also committed to an electoral path of change. When that path failed, they were already demobilized, far from thinking to take part in direct action or mass mobilization. As a result many simply stayed home.

Among those I spoke to, many refused to talk; people were acquiescent, defeatist and disinterested in discussing the elections.

Was this outcome inevitable? Nowadays there are numerous nostrums about what Syriza could have done differently. Yet many told Truthout that what happened was to be expected when a social democratic party tried, through purely electoral means, and within the terms of the EU, to battle the eurozone’s core states and monopolies.

In contrast, the KKE has been anti-Syriza and anti-EU. As its post-election statement notes, the pre-electoral position of Syriza was basically that “Despite the compromise, the battle of the negotiations has allegedly not been completed, that the EU can change, that there are still open issues (adjustment of the debt, development programs, equivalent measures) which its government can better manage.”

As it continues, “In this way, Syriza co-opted working class and popular forces that in the previous years had fought against the anti-people measures and the memoranda.”

“There is only one other road for the workers’ movement and the left: to get out of the union, [and] disengage from the EU.”

The pro-EU stance is one that has long had currency within the European left, ever-entranced by the prospects of European unity. The Greek population thinks similarly, and is not, according to polls, ready to drop the euro, and certainly not ready to depart from the European Union. Thus their susceptibility to the snake oil of a pro-EU, anti-austerity position – the solution Syriza set out – or an anti-euro, pro-EU hybrid, the combination which Popular Unity put forward.

Yet as Stavros Mavroudeas, a leading Greek economist, told Truthout, any such pro-euro or pro-EU positions rest on a fundamental misdiagnosis or elision of the causes of the Greek malaise. As he put it, “Because Greek capitalism took part in European integration and in the common market, its internal productive structure was disintegrated.” Because other European countries had more competitive agricultural and industrial sectors, integration into the common market meant the deconstruction of Greek agriculture and industry. In turn, “Structural problems were aggravated by falling profitability.” Finally, “all these erupted in the 2007-2008 crisis, then caused both fiscal, trade, current account problems.”

In response to that crisis, Mavroudeas added, the state subsidized falling competitiveness and profitability, offering loans, grants and tax exemptions. That spending was covered by cheap borrowing, which eventually caused a debt crisis.

As he summarized, there was a “productive structure problem, expressed in falling profitability and also productive, sectoral disintegration of the Greek economy, which created both fiscal deficit and the trade account deficit, and both of them then caused the current account deficit and the debt crisis.” He added, “The crisis is structural; the outcome is the debt crisis.”

Mavroudeas has little patience for the EU, nor for the arguments of Popular Unity or Syriza for staying within such a suspect structure. He sees the Syriza anti-austerity, pro-EU plans as another permutation of the failed policies of previous social democratic or center-left governments.

“Syriza attempted that, New Democracy before Syriza,” he told me. New Democracy “tried to negotiate; when faced with the EU wall, they simply retreated and accepted the logic of adjustment programs – the memorandum. Now Syriza, after political trickery for six months, they capitulated completely; this proves there is no middle position within the European Union.”

His analysis resembles the KKE’s. As Kostas Pateras of the KKE’s international relations section told Truthout, staying within the EU while pushing for real change is impossible. He criticized especially Popular Unity’s pro-EU, anti-euro stance. As he said, behind “some of the verbalisms about a transitional program, and a step to socialism,” there is a notion that leaving the euro is a technical deus ex machina.

Many imply that the Grexit, or Greek exit, would be an anti-austerity program in and of itself.

But as he said, “There are elements of Greek capital that are playing with the idea of the national currency within the European Union,” who could seize such a proposal for renewed monetary sovereignty and use it for their own purposes. As he explained, there are segments of Greek capital, such as the tourism sector, that would benefit from a devaluation.

I asked if it would be better for the Greek people to have control of their own fiscal policy, if they returned to the drachma and could devalue and engage in countercyclical spending to make up for the shortfall in people’s purchasing power by government purchases.

Pateras said, “We say, we don’t want a euro, in the sense, that if you leave the EU, and have a different organization of the economy and society, you’ll have your own currency. It’s obvious. But just leaving the currency won’t resolve anything on its own.” Meanwhile, devaluation would have perverse effects. Medications are one product Greece needs to import, and a central one for the Greek people. They would rise in price, causing privation.

If mobilization is low in Greece, it is lower yet in Germany and the United States.

Mavroudeas expanded on the economics of such a hypothetical. He called the Popular Unity proposal “nonsensical,” in terms of the “monetary mechanisms. Since the monetary mechanism on its own cannot restructure the Greece economy, you need a much stronger arm, an economic plan – a five- or possibly 10-year plan, obligatory, for the totality of the economy, which would entail subsidizing certain sectors, reducing others, protecting them and changing the whole sectoral structure of the Greek economy.”

“This cannot be done within the common market,” he added, and the common market’s laws forbid it. What cannot be done through monetary policy can be done through redistributing Greek’s wealth.

As he put it, “There is only one other road for the workers’ movement and the left: to get out of the union, [and] disengage from the EU; this requires a plan for the full Greek economy, mainly public sector public development, [and] special measures against capital. In this way you are talking about disengaging from the EU and initiating a process of social transformation – a process, not social transformation as such. The initial steps would be within capitalism, but the end of the process would necessarily mean a socialist condition.”

The socialist historian E.P. Thompson wrote that any such condition “must grow from existing strengths.”

Where are such existing strengths in Greek society? Popular Unity’s Sotiris claimed that such forces do not exist in the KKE, although it is the only opposition force in the parliament.

“I don’t think they will work towards broader forms of cooperation; naturally they will stage protests; they will stage mass rallies; they will work in the union that they dominate,” Sotiris said. “They will not actually contribute to a broader sociopolitical dynamic against austerity.”

Sotiris’ opinion is shared by some in the non-KKE Greek left intelligentsia.
Such attacks on the KKE are widely echoed outside of Greece. Given the frequency with which this suggestion of sectarianism seeps to the surface, I put it to Pateras directly. He looked at me quizzically. “You do hear it in Greece, not so much,” he said. “A normal worker would not tell you, you are sectarian. What they would say is, what you’re proposing can’t happen. That’s a real argument you could have; you try to convince them that it is possible; it is realistic; we have the preconditions to change society, but you need to come with us, and act.”

He added, “We’re not a small group on a university campus selling newspapers. We’re very deeply rooted in the Greek working class, and even if we only get 5 or 6 percent of the votes, there’s another 5 or 6 or 7 percent or even more that listen to us and agree with a lot [of] what we’re saying but won’t vote for us because they want to vote for government.”

I also asked Pateras about joint struggles. He said they do organize with other groups, “But not on a formal leadership to leadership basis.” One example was when they initiated a call on a national demonstration against “the anti-people measures.” A total of 1,000 trade unions and small farmer associations participated. A total of 100,000 people took part in the action, of which, he noted, we know nothing outside of Greece. Of those 1,000 organizations, he added, “we were in the majority in only 500.”

It is undeniable that PAME and KKE have been at the forefront of class struggle in Greece – both before and after the referendum, before Syriza’s sparkling rise, and amidst and after its sordid descent.

As Nikolas Theodorakis of PAME told Truthout, over the last five years, “since the crisis began in Greece, PAME has been the vanguard of the organization of the workers resistance in Greece against the memo, against layoffs, against the anti-worker attacks.” That included “more than 30 general strikes, nationally, hundreds, maybe thousands of industrial actions, regional and sectoral actions, [and] strikes, which lasted for almost a year.”

Such syndical activity is massive and clearly larger than any other sector of the Greek opposition can summon up. PAME also has a clear orientation: “To fight to create the conditions for the workers to enjoy what they produce,” as Theodorakis put it.

Both the KKE and PAME also have firm positions on refugees, wars and economics – the triad of crisis emanating from the European Union core, and the United States. As Theodorakis told Truthout concerning intervention, “We cannot accept the attempts of the US, of NATO, of the EU, to define the future of a different country.”

When asked about the refugee question, he said, “The first cause of the problem is imperialist interventions in the region by the EU, NATO and the US. If there were no wars, there would not be such problems.”

What that highlights for PAME is the need to “try to change the position of the Greek governments with respect to their participation in these wars.” Such a position took physical form in large demonstrations that PAME led in late September, linking refugees and war, with an emphasis on what Theodorakis called “a class struggle perspective.”

Such a position may indeed have the hearts of many of the Greek masses, but it does not yet have their political minds. Those have been dulled by the soporific of letdown, if not betrayal. And if mobilization is low in Greece, it is lower yet in Germany and the United States. Flickers of rebellion in the core states of the world system are still too dim to cast any light on the dark and crisis-ridden Greek political landscape, from which most Greek people see no way out.

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