By Mike Treen, Unite Union National Director (New Zealand), published on The Daily Blog, Feb 7, 2015
The election of a government of SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece on January 25 has opened up enormous opportunities to turn the tide against the anti-working class austerity policies that have been imposed in that country and, also, elsewhere in Europe. This small European country of less than 12 million people is becoming a world leader.
Following the world recession of 2008-10, the capitalist institutions dubbed The Troika (The European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) used the crisis to impose austerity policies on all European countries as a condition of receiving the financial support they needed to “save” the banking system of each country and prevent a further decent into chaos. Essentially, the bank debts were taken over by the public and made a public liability. Servicing the increased public debts, according to the model, required cuts in other government expenditures. Austerity became the order of the day. Europe has been mired in economic stagnation ever since.
For Greece, however, the consequences were catastrophic. At the time of the debt crisis and restructure, Greece was told that if it carried out the policies required, there would be a short recession followed by economic growth that would ensure unemployment fell. The country would be able to service its debts with ease. Instead, Greece experienced the worst depression in an advanced capitalist country since the 1930s. John Henly reporting from Athens in the January 23 Guardian highlights the human consequences:
Few in Greece, even five years ago, would have imagined their recession- and austerity-ravaged country as it is now: 1.3 million people – 26% of the workforce – without a job (and most of them without benefits); wages down by 38% on 2009, pensions by 45%, GDP by a quarter; 18% of the country’s population unable to meet their food needs; 32% below the poverty line. And just under 3.1 million people, 33% of the population, without national health insurance.
But as a consequence of the economic decline, the debt to GDP ratio increased from 115% of GDP in May 2010 to 175% on the smaller economy today.
SYRIZA received 2.246 million votes – 36.3% of the vote on January 25. As the leading party, it was given a bonus 50 seats in the Greek parliament but still fell two seats short of a majority on its own – 149 out of 300 seats. The Greek Communist party got 5.5%, also on a programme to end austerity and defend the social and economic position of Greek workers. The Anti-Capitalist Left Front (Antarsya) got 0.65%. The total vote for the radical left was over 42% of the 63.9% of the population who voted. The left won the cities decisively but also reached into the countryside and was able to win support from small farmers and villagers being wrecked by the austerity policies of the traditional parties of government.
Guardian reporter Paul Mason spent 22 days on the SYRIZA campaign trial and this report gives a taste of the changes happening across Greece:
In the weak January sun, the mountains along the Gulf of Corinth are topped with snow. Dotted along the hillsides are villages known as political “castles”, normally so wedded to one or other of the main parties – Pasok and New Democracy – that you could navigate at election time by following the posters. But this is a troubled land; two-thirds of the vineyards and lemon groves here are technically in foreclosure. The farmers have been forced to take morgtgages, the banks are clamouring to repossess and suicides in these quiet farming towns are on the up. Giannis Tsogkas, a 56-year-old grape grower from Assos, tells us: “[The government] pushed us into the IMF deal and all they do is obey the rightwingers. The little man will die. We keep hearing about suicides. So we tried to find somebody on the left to protect us. And we found it in Syriza.”
The KKE refused to support the formation of a SYRIZA government, so SYRIZA formed a coalition with an anti-austerity party on the right. This party seems to have similar positions to NZ First – economic nationalist, anti-immigrant, socially conservative. This decision was met with some dismay on the left but most people accepted the government had little alternative given the sectarianism of the KKE and the fact the other parties in parliament support austerity in one form or another.
SYRIZA itself is the product of a coalition of groups and parties that split from the KKE in earlier periods, often because of that party’s sectarianism and dogmatism. This political current then successfully linked up with new social movements that grew up. There was a mass student movement against education privatisation in 2006, the European Social Forum in 2006, protests against police violence and murder in 2008, and actions against fascism and anti-immigrant racism. SYRIZA was able to positively relate to the big social movements of ‘Aganaktismenoi’ that developed in Greece during 2011-12 without trying to take them over.
SYRIZA also won credit for being involved in practical deeds of social solidarity. Paul Mason reports:
All over Greece, Syriza set up food banks, known as Solidarity Clubs. When I follow their activists into a street market in Athens, they wear orange bibs and politely but firmly put the argument to farmers there that a bag of potatoes or oranges for the poor is their social duty. Within half an hour the trolleys are full of food. The organiser tells me: “This is the opposite of charity. We’re supporting 120 families in one area, and a lot of the work we do is about isolation, mental health and shame.” You cannot get more micro-political than sitting in a small room with desperate people and talking them out of suicide. Spin becomes impossible, the trust built hard to destroy.
Dozens of general strikes against government policies were carried out by Greek workers but were unable to stop the ruling class attacks. Workers shifted their support away from the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) – the “moderate” social democratic party carrying out the austerity policies – to SYRIZA. Smaller parties with their origins in Maoist or Trotskyist currents also joined Syriza, as did the nascent Green Party.
SYRIZA transformed itself into a single party at its 2012 congress, but has organised tendencies of which the largest is the Left Platform which got about 30% of the vote at the congress. This grouping is seen as more radical than the majority current around the party leader and new Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
It seems that a very large number of SYRIZA’s MP’s are economics professors who have been lecturing and arguing around the world against the neoliberal capitalist policies being imposed in Greece and elsewhere. Nearly all claim some adherence to Marxism as a tool to understand and transform the world. However, there are also significant differences around how much can be done to reverse course whilst remaining in a capitalist framework. The very smart and influential Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis gets described as a “libertarian Marxist”. He has dubbed austerity policies as the equivalent to “fiscal waterboarding” and has said he wants to “destroy” the Greek oligarchy. But he also seems to believe that a modern Keynesianism should be able to get Greece and Europe out of the trap it is in. He has his own blog which he is continuing while in office. Other MPs, including those associated with the Left Platform, seem to believe a more fundamental and radical break with capitalism is needed.
For the moment, they are united in trying to do whatever it takes to end austerity and get Greece moving again. All currents are united in implementing policies that will make the life of working people easier and get the economy moving again. That requires a fundamental break with the Troika and all its stands for.
Whatever technical form it takes, Greece requires a radical reduction in debt servicing so it can spend to lift the Greek people out of the mass poverty to which they have been reduced. It needs money for immediate relief and in order to invest in social and economic programmes that lift the country out of economic depression. The Troika and the German government appear determined to resist any weakening of austerity or relaxation of loan repayment terms. This is despite the fact that what the Greek government is asking for – debt reduction and repayments tied to economic growth – is almost exactly what was given to Germany in the 1950s restructuring of its debts.
The Greek government is in a high stakes game of poker with bluff and counter-bluff as essential elements. The EU powers know that a refusal to renegotiate the debt and a consequent default by Greece could deepen the existing Euro area recession and provoke a further weakening of the currency. At the same time, any “concessions” to Greece will then be demanded by other countries subjected to similar measures with similar disastrous economic and social consequences – especially Ireland, Spain and Portugal. In all three of those countries, there is a growing left alternative that is winning mass support as the only way of exiting the misery they face. Recent opinion polls have put the ant-austerity Sinn Fein in Ireland and Podemos (“We Can”) in Spain as the most popular parties with around 25% of the vote. Other radical left parties are also registering significant support in both countries. Elections must be held before the end of the year in Spain and before April 2016 in Ireland.
Disappointment with parties of the left being captured by pro-capitalist forces has led the leader of the National Union of Metal Workers in South Africa, Irvin Jim, to take the lead in forming a mass socialist party. Austerity protests led by unions have also taken place in recent months in Belgium, Italy and Ukraine.
The growth of Podemos in Spain has been even more explosive than that of SYRIZA. It has existed for less than one year and has provoked a collapse in support of the traditional social democratic party, it has overtaken the Communist Party-led coalition called United Left and has pushed the traditional right wing party into second place in the polls. Last week in the wake of the SYRIZA victory, hundreds of thousands attended a rally in Madrid to show their support for Podemos. Its articulate and popular leader, Pablo Iglesias, looks to winning a majority for the left and is articulating how and why the left has been so successful:
That’s how the enemy wants us. He wants us small, speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols. He is delighted with that, because he knows that as long as we are like that, we are not dangerous. We can have a really radical discourse, say we want to do a general wildcat strike, talk about the people in arms, brandish symbols, carry portraits of the great revolutionaries to our demonstrations — they are delighted with that! They laugh at us. However, when you gather together hundreds, thousands of people, when you start convincing the majority, even those who voted for the enemy — that’s when they start to be afraid. And that is called ‘politics.’ That is what we need to learn.
The world has had decades of electing governments that seem to do the opposite of what they were elected for. This seems especially true for the social democratic, liberal or left wing parties in Europe, North America and Australasia which have kept pretty much to policies that don’t upset big business. In fact, in cases like the 1984-90 Labour government in New Zealand and the Anthony Blair-led Labour government in the Great Britain, they have carried out policies even more right wing than their Tory predecessors in government.
From day one, the new Greek government has shown a determination to live up to its radical programme that has been wonderfully refreshing to see. Some measures were symbolic, but the symbolism runs deep. Alexis Tsipras took the oath of office from the President rather than from a Greek Orthodox priest to underscore the reduced influence of the church (11,000 Greek Orthodox priests, for example, are on the public payroll). He laid a wreath at the war memorial in Kaisariani, where 200 communist partisans were murdered by the Nazis in 1944, rather than at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Barricades were removed from around the parliament building. The finance minister turned up to work riding on his motorbike, and in his first announcement, he said that the cleaners sacked at the ministry would be rehired and he would sack some consultants instead. On February 3, the government announced it will sell its luxury car fleet and require its ministers to travel in economy class and use their own cars. My personal favourite is there is not a necktie to be seen! These are ministers of the people!
In the first few days, we saw the following measures taken: the minimum wage was restored to its previous level – a 25% increase; privatisations of the ports and energy companies halted; pensions were restored; power reconnected to 300,000 homes that had been disconnected for failure to pay; 200,000 Greek-born children of migrant parents were given full citizenship rights; prescription and hospital visit charges were abolished; thousands of state workers were rehired; and collective bargaining rights were restored to many workers. The government has declared its intention to massively increase the tax take from the oligarchs who have never paid tax in Greece.
A serious attempt to implement its 40 point programme would involve a deep confrontation with international capitalism and its domestic agents. Within SYRIZA, that means a confrontation is inevitably going to emerge between those who want to retreat before the pressure and those who want to move forward and defend the interests of working people against the interests of capitalism no matter what the costs. “Of course there’s nothing inevitable about which of these two options SYRIZA will choose, but given the popular hopes generated by its promises, to retreat on its core commitments would certainly be to consign itself to future electoral oblivion,” writes UK writer Ed Rooksby. “Much here would depend on mobilised mass support seeking to push the government on and to force it to stick to its promises—indeed a SYRIZA victory will probably unleash a new wave of popular struggles.”
The Greek government and people are able to take advantage of growing divisions within the capitalist establishment internationally. Many pro-capitalist voices are saying that a new course is needed to save capitalism, including Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Krugman has written:
To understand the political earthquake in Greece, it helps to look at Greece’s May 2010 “standby arrangement” with the International Monetary Fund, under which the so-called troika — the I.M.F., the European Central Bank and the European Commission — extended loans to the country in return for a combination of austerity and reform. It’s a remarkable document, in the worst way. The troika, while pretending to be hard-headed and realistic, was peddling an economic fantasy. And the Greek people have been paying the price for those elite delusions.
You see, the economic projections that accompanied the standby arrangement assumed that Greece could impose harsh austerity with little effect on growth and employment. Greece was already in recession when the deal was reached, but the projections assumed that this downturn would end soon — that there would be only a small contraction in 2011, and that by 2012 Greece would be recovering. Unemployment, the projections conceded, would rise substantially, from 9.4 percent in 2009 to almost 15 percent in 2012, but would then begin coming down fairly quickly.
What actually transpired was an economic and human nightmare. Far from ending in 2011, the Greek recession gathered momentum. Greece didn’t hit the bottom until 2014, and by that point it had experienced a full-fledged depression, with overall unemployment rising to 28 percent and youth unemployment rising to almost 60 percent. And the recovery now underway, such as it is, is barely visible, offering no prospect of returning to pre crisis living standards for the foreseeable future.
Even U.S. President Obama has said “You cannot keep on squeezing countries that are in the midst of a depression. At some point, there has to be a growth strategy in order for them to pay off their debts, to eliminate some of their deficits.”
Many voices among those who want capitalism to continue are saying they should at least allow Greek to restructure its debt whilst continuing to oppose other pro-worker policies that the new government may introduce. The UK Financial Times likened Greece to a “quasi slave economy”:
It is easy to see why Syriza put debt repudiation at the heart of its electoral campaign. John Paul Getty once opined that “if you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem; if you owe the bank $100m, that’s the bank’s problem”. Greece’s predicament may ultimately force creditors to the negotiating table. To service its debt burden would require Greece to operate as a quasi slave economy, running a primary surplus of 5 per cent of GDP for years, purely for the benefit of its foreign creditors. Even the IMF has dropped hints in favour of some debt forgiveness.
The Economist, that premiere mouthpiece of British capitalism, concedes that Alexis Tsipras has “got two big things right”: that austerity has been “excessive” and Greece’s debt is “unpayable”. They don’t like Tsipras’s “crazy socialism” and urge him to stick to “structural reforms” in return for “debt forgiveness”.
The Economist fears that German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s “obstinacy” in demanding that Greece stick to failed austerity policies is likely to backfire on her. “So in the end, Greece will probably force Europe to make some hard choices…Greece’s voters may be living in a fools’ paradise if they think that Mr Tsipras can deliver what he says, but the Germans have to look at the consequences of their obstinacy. Five years after the onset of the Euro crisis, southern European countries remain stuck with near zero growth and blisteringly high unemployment. Deflation is setting in, so debt burdens rise despite fiscal austerity.”
If Merkel “continues to oppose all efforts to kick-start growth and banish deflation, she will condemn Europe to a lost decade even more debilitating than Japan’s in the 1990’s.” The Economist fears that that would trigger “a bigger populist backlash than Greece’s, right across Europe.” That would produce the demise of the Euro from which Germany would be “the biggest loser”.
The continuing recession in Europe has forced even the European Central Bank to abandon its opposition to printing money in a desperate move to try and get economies kick-started. There is also a strong right wing Euro-sceptic current represented by the National Front In France and UKIP in the UK that want the Euro to fail. These differences can and should be exploited by SYRIZA.
The left and labour movement internationally must put aside all differences aside in the period ahead to give maximum support to the Greek government and people in their fight against international capital in the form of the Troika and the German government. The state institutions that have served capitalism so well in Greece will also be dragging their feet or openly undermining the new government. Greece has a history of right wing governments, dictators and military coups to prevent the left and labour movement coming to power. In the 2012 election, half of police officers voted for Golden Dawn the fascist party.
The longer the SYRIZA government can survive and resist, the better chance working people throughout Europe can act to remove right wing austerity governments and mobilise their own power through their unions and communities to create an alternative to the Europe of capitalism, recession and despair.
We need to ensure that the left wing parties that come to power have the strength and vision to see the limited governmental power they have as simply the beginning point for organising and mobilising working people to take economic power out of the hands of the capitalists and their agents. This was touched on by Pablo Iglesia in a speech to a SYRIZA rally in October when he said “winning an election does not mean winning power”.
Real power will necessarily involve the nationalisation of banks and major monopolies and placing them under workers and community control so that the economy can be reorganised and planned to meet human needs, not human greed. It will also require new institutions of popular power where we make decisions on a daily basis not just tick a box once every three or four years.
Unite Union National Director Mike Treen has a blog hosted on The Daily Blog website. The site is sponsored by several unions and hosts some of New Zealand’s leading progressive commentators. Mike’s blog includes union news and general political comment. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of Unite Union.