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Greek Politics Four Years After the Financial Crisis

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Leo Panitch on the left Coalition: Syriza and the struggle against austerity.


SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries in Baltimore.

In Greece, a recent survey done by the Roman Catholic charity Caritas said that the social fabric of Greece is at a breaking point. The survey reports growing inequality and the appearance of a whole new class of poor.

In the meantime, the Greek government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Samara, says a big step has been taken towards a new Greece, while they prepare for another round of austerity measures, cutting 11,000 more public service jobs.

To discuss all of this and more is Leo Panitch. Leo Panitch is the Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and a distinguished research professor of political science at York University in Toronto. He’s the author of many books. The most recent among them is the U.K. Deutscher book prize winner The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire and In and Out of Crisis: The Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives.

So thank you for joining us, Leo.


PERIES: So you were recently in Greece. And last week there was also a national strike organized organized by the left. Could you tell us more about it?

PANITCH: Well, your description of the situation there, borrowing from that Catholic Church report, is very accurate. It’s even been worsened by the introduction and passage—and virtually overnight—of an 800-page piece of legislation that, quote-unquote, flexibilizes labor markets, makes labor standards much, much weaker in the country, and throws in a lot privatization. The largest port in Greece, Piraeus in Athens, is being privatized and sold off to Chinese investors. So the situation is very bad.

And the astonishing thing, the appalling thing, the disgusting thing is that it is this evidence of what that report called the “new poor”, it is this evidence of the appalling breach of parliamentary procedures with this new kind of legislation, it is the 26 percent unemployment and the devastation of the public sector in terms of social services and health services, etc., that leads the international bond markets to now want to purchase Greek bonds again. And this has all happened in the course of the last few weeks. And Angela Merkel’s visit there was designed to give an in imprimatur to Greece now having access again to international finance.

PERIES: Why did those bonds do so well, Leo?

PANITCH: Well, they precisely did so well because by virtue of doing what we’ve all just described and promising to continue to do it and make Greece completely open to foreign investors and to selling off Greeks’ increase assets, including, you know, the Greek beaches and islands, etc., that is what the bond masters wanted to hear in terms of a commitment to, above all, give priority to paying off the debt that all governments have in the form of sovereign bonds. That’s what’s going on.

Now, I must say, while that makes Greece look particularly abject, what’s going on at the same time is that Greece is the only country—not only in Europe, but really in the world—which in the face of this terrible crisis has thrown up a creative democratic socialist movement and party that is leading in the opinion polls and therefore is poised to be able to form the next government. It is a remarkable development. It was the only party in the Greek Parliament that stood up to the appalling breach of parliamentary procedure when this 800 piece of legislation was pushed through, and went out of the assembly, marched its delegates out the assembly, and were greeted by a very large protest demonstration that the party organized in Syntagma Square, right across from the assembly building. I am talking about SYRIZA, which has existed for about two decades as a collection of various parties and movements. And it made a breakthrough in 2011 in the face of this crisis to now having upwards of 30 percent of the opinion polls. And as I said, it’s leading all parties.

And what’s significant about it is that it commits itself in the—after the new party Congress, which took place last summer, it commits itself to socializing the financial system in Greece, to ending all of the cutbacks that were implemented through the various memoranda signed with the European Central Bank and the IMF, and commits itself, moreover (and this is perhaps more important, more important than anything), to democratizing and making honest the Greek state. This is an enormously important development and a very admirable one, which we should be following very closely. And they say very clearly that they don’t just want to go into the state, just get elected, but that they will only be able to do what they promise to do—and this is a direct quote from their political statement—we’ll only be able to do it insofar as there is a militant and catalytic, multidimensional movement of subversion behind us.

And the big question to be asked is not only whether they will do well in the European elections at the end of May, whether they will do well in the local and regional elections that take place at the same time, but whether they are developing the capacities of such a movement. They are very active in building solidarity networks, where people are sharing food, sharing drugs, providing people with shelter, and so on. This is a remarkable development, and we need to be watching it very closely.

PERIES: So, tell us, Leo, what are the chances of SYRIZA actually succeeding and then actually being able to address some of the difficulties that people are experiencing? This has been a seven-year recession—four years since the bailout. What are your predictions for their success?

PANITCH: Well, I think they’re very committed. The quest big questions are these, are two.

First of all, they want to do this while staying within the European Union. And much then depends on whether the European Union and left forces in northern Europe, progressive forces in northern Europe, will give such a government enough space to be able to change the trajectory of austerity policy in Greece, and by example for all of Europe. That’s the first question. And in that sense they’ll only be able to go as far as the balance of forces in Europe allows them to go.

But secondly, they’ll only be able to go as far as there is indeed such a movement, such a militant and catalytic movement behind them as to keep their feet to the fire, as to make them accountable to the people who they are speaking for and who have mobilized behind them. And that too would be a break not only with predominant practice, party practice in Europe, but with predominant practice of democratic parties, socialist parties, labor parties almost everywhere. This would be a remarkable political the innovation if they can both stand up to neoliberal globalization externally and be able to mobilize and develop Democratic capacities internally.

PERIES: Leo, people in Greece are making 30 to 40 percent less than they did at the beginning of the crises, and unemployment is soaring. What are the specific proposals that SYRIZA has to resolve these issues?

PANITCH: Well, they’re very, very committed to increasing the minimum wage, reintroducing full labor standards, bringing back the public servants who have been laid off, socializing the banking system and using that funds for a national industrial strategy. All of this is laid out very clearly. Any of your people who are watching this can go to the SYRIZA website to download their political statement from last summer’s congress and they will see this.

Now, it is true that as they try to get more and more votes, so as to be able to bring the government to a situation where they call a national election within this year or next year, that they sometimes play down some of the more radical elements in this. But the commitment, I think, is there. There will be jostling inside the party over how far SYRIZA will go in implementing its promises in this regard. But I have no doubt, I have no doubt at all that they will do some things immediately which will mark a break in all of Europe by way of increasing the minimum wage, increasing welfare standards, and that—ending the privatizations, bringing people back into the—who’ve been laid off in education and health, etc. That they will do.

The bigger question is, as they try to go beyond that, to really resolve the country’s problems, whether they will be given the room for maneuver, which may entail the introduction of capital controls to prevent capital outflows from Greece, which may entail reneging on some of the debt. That wouldn’t be a bad thing. These bloody banks in France and Germany and the hedge funds who’ve just been purchasing Greek bonds are bandits. They are legalized bandits who are making a fortune on the basis of what we began his conversation with: the creation of a new poverty class in countries like Greece.

PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us.

PANITCH: Very happy to do it, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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