The Mouse that Roared! Greece’s Struggle Against Austerity by New York Brit Expat
We live in interesting times … Those on the left following the situation in Greece were treated to an interesting spectacle in the last election in Greece on May 6th 2012. As expected, those mainstream parties that supported the EU/IMF/ECB memorandum (http://www.reuters.com/…) imposing even more harsh austerity on the country were punished: New Democracy’s (the conservatives, centre-right) votes from 33%-19%, PASOK’s (the Greek socialist party) share fell from 43%-13%, LAOS fell below the 3% needed for securing seats (right-wing nationalist party) all lost seats in the election (greek election results). This represents in many senses a significant rejection of the mainstream political forces that have been ruling Greece since the end of the rule of the colonels (1967-74, for a history of modern Greece see, History of modern Greece) and particularly of the austerity that they have been imposing on the people of Greece over recent months.
Cheat Sheet (to keep track of the players):SYRIZA: coalition of the radical left, led by Alexis Tsipras
New Democracy: Conservative, centre right neoliberals, led by Samaras
PASOK: Panhellenic Socialist Movement, Socialist party led by Venizelos
KKE: Communist Party of Greece
ANTARSYA: Coalition of Greek Anticapitalist Left, hard left
Golden Dawn: Chrysi Avgi, Greek Fascist Party, neonazis
DIMAR: Democratic Left, centre left to left wing, led by Fotis Kouvelis
LAOS: right wing nationalists
Independent Greeks: Right-wing split off of New Democracy, anti-austerity
But the most dramatic thing was the fact that the votes for the left rose significantly, even more so SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left which is composed of Marxists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Eurocommunists, left and moderate reformists, greens and a number of other tendencies) came in second place (For the 10 demands of SYRIZA which they campaigned on May 6th; see: http://socialistresistance.org/…).
“The vote for the broad left rose from a modest 12% in 2009 to an impressive 35.5% — 17% for SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left), 8.5% for the Communist Party (KKE), 1.2% for the anti-capitalist left party ANTARSYA, 6.1% for the moderate Democratic Left and 2.9% for the Greens. However, the prospect of a left government is doubtful since the KKE, an ultra-Stalinist party, ruled out beforehand any cooperation with “opportunists,” by which it means all other left parties except from itself. Moreover, the Democratic Left and the Greens are moderate centre-left parties that do not differ radically from PASOK. Even so, the collective result of the three radical left parties, SYRIZA, the KKE and ANTARSYA, was an impressive 26.5% (http://socialistresistance.org/…).”
On the other side of the political spectrum, the rise in the vote for the Golden Dawn fascist party which for the first time secured seats in the Greek Parliament (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/…; moreover, a video surfaced of Athens police and Golden Dawn members brutalising an immigrant: http://observers.france24.com/…).
As first New Democracy, then SYRIZA and finally PASOK failed to pull together a government, the Greeks are headed back towards elections on June 17th 2012.
In SYRIZA’s case, the party leader Alexis Tsipras, who has conducted himself in an exemplary manner despite the massive witch hunt he and his party has been subjected to by both the Greek and the international media, put forward a five point plan on which to discuss with other parties (Syriza’s 5 point plan).
But the KKE, an ultra-Stalinist party, ruled out beforehand any cooperation with “opportunists,” by which it means all other left parties except from itself. They refused to even consider joining a coalition with SYRIZA; refusing even to meet with them and spoke with them by phone. The smaller far left coalition, ANTARSYA, also refused to consider participation – unless SYRIZA supported all its policies! Thus the mandate passed to PASOK.
A bit of excitement was added when speculation that DIMAR (the democratic left) would throw in with PASOK. DIMAR insisted upon a condition that could not be met to form a national salvation government; that SYRIZA would also join the coalition. So now Greece heads to elections again …
One worry that I have is that while there was no question that the votes of the left would be insufficient to form a government, the fact that the KKE and ANTARSYA refused to participate in a coalition could affect support for both SYRIZA and them at the next election in June as voters wonder whether the Left can overcome its sectarian nature to answer the desperate call of the Greek working class and poor. At the moment, it appears as though SYRIZA is picking up votes from other Left parties and those of the mainstream, hopefully this momentum will continue.
I. The memorandum:
The mainstream in Greece and in Europe is trying to present these elections as a referendum on the euro; SYRIZA is presenting them as a referendum on austerity (http://www.guardian.co.uk/…). In the hard Left, two groups ran on an anti-euro stance, one was the KKE and the other Antarsya, while SYRIZA chose to run against austerity and specifically the memorandum in February (http://www.reuters.com/…) agreed between the EU, ECB and IMF and the Greek mainstream leaders.
This memorandum called for increased privatisation (both full and partial), reductions of the monthly minimum wage by 22%, 32% for those under age 25, 15,000 state workers being placed in labour reserve getting 60% of their salary and facing dismissal after a year, only 1 in 5 people retiring will be replaced, the civil service workforce is to be reduced by 150,000 by 2015, pensions over 1000 euros/month will be reduced to 1000 euros/month. Homelessness is rising, young people are moving back in with their parents, drug use and prostitution is rising and social welfare benefits, especially health and education are being completely undermined. Women are bearing the brunt of the austerity measures as unemployment has risen, social services are being privatised and too expensive and caring for children, the sick and the elderly is falling on them (http://www.womensviewsonnews.org/…).
There has been massive resistance to the austerity measures imposed by the Troika (EU, IMF, ECB) in February. There have been 17 general strikes and one fifth of the population of the country has been on the streets in recent months protesting against occupations. There are a number of workplaces in occupation – hospitals, newspapers, steel works. And on May 6 the population rejected the austerity programme of the Troika at the ballot box.
An obvious question arises, why is SYRIZA not running on leaving the euro? There is an obvious answer; specifically, the majority of Greeks do not want to leave the euro. At the same time, they also do not want to submit to austerity which has decimated the Greek economy and has literally destroyed the social welfare state, incomes (including pensions), benefits, and jobs of the Greek majority.
In this situation SYRIZA has continually made clear that it will not compromise on their programme even if it means expulsion from the Eurozone. This is tactically a much better way of posing the question given the concrete situation they face.
II. The Powder-keg
The situation in Greece has been fuelling further problems in the Eurozone. Fears of Greece either leaving or being forced out of the Eurozone (which would require changes in the EU constitution as there is no formal mechanism for withdrawing or being forced out) has led to increased worries in Greece and in the stock markets. It is not really so much the problem of Greece leaving as it is a small economy, but the possibility of this being the beginning of the floodgates where other countries (e.g., Spain, Portugal) suffering from the agony of austerity also abandoning the Euro leading to the ship sinking. Given the manner in which the German economy has remained strong which is as an exporter of goods to the peripheries in Europe (enabled by undermining incomes in Germany, see e.g., http://researchonmoneyandfinance.org/…), an obvious question arises: is Germany cutting off its nose to spite its face? Impoverishing those people that actually purchase your goods is somewhat nonsensical and fears of hyperinflation in Germany cannot explain the level of agony being imposed upon the European periphery by Germany’s insistence upon neoliberal economic policies.
To add to the fuel on the fire there have been rumours of runs on Greek banks and the knowledge that the ECB will not lend to some Greek banks (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/… and http://edition.cnn.com/…):
“The numbers on how much has recently been taken out of Greek banks by depositors have been much disputed – not surprisingly, when the official figures will not be published for weeks.Depending on who you talk to, anything from €700m ($892m; £560m) to €1.2bn was taken out of banks in the days after the election, out of total deposits of around €160bn. That total, in turn, is about a third lower than it was at the end of 2009.
At the same time, the ECB has apparently now said that it won’t directly lend to some Greek banks that it judges to be technically “insolvent”. These are banks that have holes in their balance sheets, because, thanks to the restructuring of Greek sovereign debt, they can’t now expect to get back all of the money that they lent to the government (http://www.bbc.co.uk/…).”
There is a lot of fear-mongering of Greece either leaving or being forced out of the Euro, both on the impact on Greece and on the impact of the Eurozone. Are these being over-rated or is keeping Greece in more important to the stability of the Eurozone? Are these threats empty on the part of the EU or is this a real danger? Here is an analysis from BofA/Merrill Lynch on the impact on the Eurozone which is worth reading (http://www.morningstar.co.uk/…). Certainly, the situation for the Greeks is already extremely difficult; leaving the Euro will enable them to regain control over both their monetary and fiscal policy. The immediate effect of a loss of access to foreign loans to help them recover the economy will make things harder and a default on their loans will mean that exactly. Policies to stimulate exports and increase tourism will help them recover and rebuild. The austerity measures are literally creating a situation where the Greek economy will never recover; moreover the reduction of Greece to poverty is not only unsustainable but unnecessary (see for e.g., http://www.neweconomics.org/…).
III. The dangers of sectarianism:
The KKE responded to Syriza’s vote on May 6 in the following way:
“Nevertheless a government, irrespective of its composition, must deal with the whole spectrum of the problems. It should not merely denounce the memorandum but return to the people the gains that were abolished before the memorandum – because most of the gains were lost before the memorandum- as well as many others abolished after the memorandum. A government has to manage everything and not merely the unemployment benefit, as was mentioned. It has to manage issues of economy, the stance of the business groups towards the working people, the list of the privatisations adopted in the previous years. It has to handle issues of foreign policy such as the general commitments that arise from the EU, NATO, from the strategic alliance with the USA. There is no government that tears the agreements into pieces, abstracts politics and only promotes the packet of measures of the next day.In order to agree with such a government the KKE needs to make a U-turn, a summersault and not merely a small retreat, a small turn. It must make a root and branch change. And above all it would have to make unacceptable compromises that have nothing to do with the people’s interests. Maybe the people are not interested in the ideological purity of the various parties, but in a party that all these years, from the very first moment of its foundation, has been in the frontline of the struggle does not want to abandon this position in order to gain some ministries. The people do not need this kind of KKE” (from the press office of the CC of the KKE, 06/05/2012, http://inter.kke.gr/…).”
In doing so it showed a complete disregard for the policies on which SYRIZA had stood in the election – and even worse a complete contempt for the thousands of people who had voted for them and their policies. It seems likely that they will be punished by some of their own traditional voters on June 17 and beyond – in subsequent opinion polls they have lost over 1% of their votes in less than two weeks.
To understand the situation among the Left in Greece, it is useful to understand the history of the Greek left. To help, I will present two different pieces discussing the history of the left in Greece and its currents transformations that have attempted to explain the current situation. The pieces are complementary, rather than contradictory, in terms of information and also express some of the fears of the Left with respect to SYRIZA in terms of carrying out its own minimum programme.
On the one hand, here is a piece from Socialist Resistance calling for a United Front of the Left and criticising the failure to form it in a period of intense need:
“In other words, in this situation – a “Year Zero” situation for the literally hungry masses – these masses handed their votes to SYRIZA, and secondarily to the KKE, with the mandate for them to take power, reject the memorandum, reject austerity, restore their livelihoods and do so by turning the tables on the Greek plutocracy, those who actually still have their bucket loads of cash despite the “crisis”, while telling the German-French plutocracy to shove off.
Yet it is in such a context that the Greek left now seems unable to form a united front for the salvation of the people. The responsibility for this lies mostly, if not entirely, with the spectacular sectarianism of the KKE, which has point blank refused to join a united front with SYRIZA. More than that – criminally – the KKE has refused to even talk about it.
In a quasi-reenactment of Stalin’s Third Period disaster in Germany – when the German Communist Party was ordered to refuse any joint work with the German Social Democrats against Nazism, indeed the Social Democrats were declared “social fascists”, allowing the Nazis to walk into power unimpeded – the KKE claims it will not work with SYRIZA who it denounces as social democrats who will inevitably sell out.
But if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, then the tragedy being prepared by the KKE is based entirely on farce. For anyone aware of modern Greek history, the idea of the KKE having some principled left position opposed to collaborating with social democrats or even neoliberals and right-wing nationalists is a fantastic joke.
While there is much to validly criticise about the program of SYRIZA’s leadership group, as a whole the SYRIZA coalition is light years to the left of the German Social Democrats of the 1930s, let alone the neoliberal “social democrats” today, and the only actual revolutionary policy in such a dire situation is to “take the bull by its horns” and form a united front with SYRIZA around the most immediate needs of the working class, and work with the more radical left components of SYRIZA in a non-sectarian fashion to challenge its leadership to keep left and to move further left as the ensuing crisis will inevitably demand (http://socialistresistance.org/…).”
Paul Mason also has written an excellent piece discussing some history of the Greek left and the formation of SYRIZA which is very useful for those not well-versed in intricacies of the Left of Greece and also raises the fear of SYRIZA collapsing into social democracy rather than pursuing a more radical agenda. The following is a description of some of the history of the Greek Left (http://paulmasonnews.tumblr.com/…):
“Greek communism, like most of western communism after the 1970s, was split into two hostile parties: the KKE of the “interior” and that of the “exterior” – the latter denoting a Moscow-oriented party, the former denoting a Euro-communist, more parliamentary and socially liberal agenda. Initially Synaspismos was the electoral alliance between the two KKEs. But in the early 1990s the main Moscow-oriented KKE quit the alliance, purging about 45% of its members, who then stayed inside Synaspismos with the Eurocommunists. These included Tsipras.
Synaspismos then evolved in an interesting direction. Reacting to the rise of the anti-globalisation movement, first of all the party itself became a highly diverse left umbrella group: of Eurocommunists, left-social Democrats, far leftists, and ecologists. It played a significant role in mobilizations against summits, beginning in Genoa 2001 and beyond. Meanwhile the main KKE remained a traditional Communist party, rooted in public sector and manual trade unions. Then, in the 2004 election, Synaspismos came together with other small parties to form SYRIZA. These included a split-off from the British SWP, a split off from the main Communist Party and another group of eco-leftists.
Under Tsipras’ leadership, and invigorated by now including the entire left except the traditionalist KKE, SYRIZA grew the far left’s vote from 3.3% to 5.6% in the 2007 election – giving it 14 MPs. The crisis which broke out in December 2008, after the police shooting of a 15 year old schoolboy led to two weeks of rioting by the youth and poor of Athens, further strengthened SYRIZA as a left pole of attraction. Though the parties inside SYRIZA remained in the low thousands of members, many young people began to identify with them – above all in a country where Marxism has massive prestige due to its role in both the anti-fascist resistance and in the 1946-49 Civil War. In addition, those migrants with the right to vote, hearing a rising chorus of anti-migrant rhetoric from the centre as well as the right, have flocked to vote SYRIZA (http://paulmasonnews.tumblr.com/…).”
IV. What is to be done?
From SYRIZA’s election manifesto we have the following:
“The incumbent economic and social system has failed and we must overthrow it!
The economic crisis rocking global capitalism has shattered the illusions. All the more people witness that capitalist speculation is an inhuman organizational principle for the modern society. It is also unanimously shared that that private banks function only for the benefit of the bankers harming the rest of the people. Industrialists and bankers absorb billions from Health, Education and Pensions.
The exit from the crisis entails bold measures that will obstruct those who create it from continuing their destructive work. We are endorsing a new model of production and distribution of wealth, one that would include society in its totality. In this respect the large capitalist property is to be made public and managed democratically along social and ecologic criteria. Our strategic aim is socialism with democracy, a system in which all will be entitled to participate in the decision-making process (http://socialistresistance.org/…).”
So given the election results in May, what can we expect in June? The situation in Greece is very dynamic; the ability of the mainstream to rally people to view this election as a referendum on the Euro rather than as a referendum on Austerity will probably be a prime determining factor.
The question remains whether the Left can overcome its sectarianism to do what needs to be done. No one is honestly suggesting a true revolutionary programme can be carried out using only elections. But if the Left can not present the masses with a viable alternative, a serious danger exists of a shift to the hard-right. If people vote for the mainstream because they think the Left cannot unite, and austerity continues under a mainstream government, voters may switch to the hard right.
Even if the Left wins, it is uncertain how long they will govern. Another subversion of the will of the people in Greece is definitely possible; Election fraud to outright coup d’etat could be employed to subvert the will of the Greek people. The rise in the fascist right presents a serious danger of the descent into barbarism. If the Greek left cannot unite, that danger increases.
In a move reeking of irony, Angela Merkel (http://www.bbc.co.uk/…) has suggested holding a referendum in Greece on whether or not they want to stay in the Eurozone; given that this brought down the elected government of Greece headed by Papandreou and resulted in a “technocratic” government headed by a former executive of Goldman-Sachs, Papademos, this is rather interesting. Separating remaining in the Eurozone from the elections may actually further undercut the mainstream parties, which somehow I do not think is in her interests.
Recent polls suggest that SYRIZA will win the election, but it is uncertain whether they will win a majority (e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/…, http://news.sky.com/…). They are moving to transform themselves from their current status as a coalition into a political party. This move is motivated by the recognition that many new people are flocking to join – and to join SYRIZA itself rather than one of its constituent organisations. This will mean that if they are the biggest party they will benefit from one of the most undemocratic pieces of electoral legislation which is that the largest party gets an extra 50 seats!
It seems that people are shifting from other Left parties towards SYRIZA. If they cannot win a majority, that means a coalition government and given the failure in May to rally around SYRIZA could mean a catastrophe. The most likely situation is that we will be back in a situation where a coalition is needed – with even more pressure on SYRIZA to compromise its principles.
What is needed is two-fold in many senses: 1) unity among the Greek Left and 2) a continuing movement to both continue building mass support and to keep pressure on SYRIZA to hold the course. The programme advocated by SYRIZA is a good minimum programme (http://socialistresistance.org/…). But it is throwing off the shackles of the capitalist system that has caused this crisis that is the goal.
That is why it is essential for the whole left internationally to demand the Greek left break with its sectarianism and do what needs to be done. If the Left cannot unite in coalition, this will be a catastrophic loss of opportunity for the left-wing anti-austerity forces in Greece – but also in Europe as a whole – which would be a serious defeat for the left internationally as well as one which would probably strengthen support for the far right in Greece.
At the same time the need for solidarity with the struggle of the Greek people against austerity has never been more acute. Calls from the May 15 movement in Spain and elsewhere for a day of action against austerity on June 16, with solidarity with Greece as a focal point should be supported extensively.