“The Crisis in Greece and the Left Response”

Presentation by Despina Lalaki, delivered at AKNY panel on “Syriza and the Strategic Challenges of the Greek Left,” Historical Materialism 2013 Conference, April 27, 2013, New York. See also the papers by Costas Panayotakis and Iannis Delatolas.

I will pick up from where Costas left off: “How Syriza will forge and deliver its message will be one of the factors that will help determine how the current capitalist crisis in Greece, Europe and the world is resolved.” The bar for Syriza has been set really high! In June 17, 2012, the day of the last elections in Greece, Huffington Post published an article with the title “Could Syriza’s Success Mean a New Boldness for the International Left?”, a question of course which was answered in the affirmative. The author, Alex MacDonald, suggested that the second most socially unacceptable “N” word – “nationalization” – may soon be again a word thrown about the place without causing the fear and anxiety that it currently generates and that Syriza’s rise, “the best showing the left has had in ages”, as he described it, could be a sign for better things to come.

Working with AKNY-Greece Solidarity Movement and Syriza New York, both newly established groups here in New York City that work to raise awareness and bring attention to the economic, social and political degradation in Greece, I have been surprised by the kind of attention and the seriousness of interest we have received from various groups and veteran activists. The expectation that Syriza will pull the rug from under capitalism’s feet is pervasive! More specifically, it is expected that the escalation of the economic, social and political crisis, especially in the European South and maybe even the Balkans, along with the change of policy which Syriza promises to follow if elected – breaking with the European policy of austerity and the assaults against labor – will trigger a series of events which will lead to a new era for the European Union and possibly to a European Socialist Union.

Syriza knows full well that one swallow does not a summer make. Any efforts to challenge the current European policies have to find wider support. Mr. Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, has called for “an economically viable strategy that must follow the model of 1953 London Debt Agreement, which gave the post-war German economy a kick start and helped it create the ‘economic miracle’ of the post-war era.” In order to push this agenda he has called on the assistance of the European Left and trade-unions. The problems, as well as the ‘great expectations’ are found precisely at this juncture. When in London Mr. Tsipras appealed to the Labor Party, which he described as “one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication.” However, as we all know this is not a party of the Left as was first established in the beginnings of the 20th century but the party of Tony Blair, of the Iraq war and of neo-liberal policies which merely continued the destruction started by the recently deceased Margaret Thatcher. The European Left to which Syriza has appealed for years has mutated into what was euphemistically described as “social democracy” and executers of neo-liberalism. Trade unions, much like in the case of Greece, in most cases have actively collaborated in the promotion of neo-liberal policies and in the implementation of the austerity program.

The greatest of the expectations here is that under the pressures of the extreme economic crisis and the social havoc that austerity has caused, trade unions will abandon the path they have been following for years in supporting the European economic elites and their governments, and will shift course to challenge the system on its basis. Last January, the strike of the subway transportation workers in Greece, called as an ‘indefinite strike,’ brought the city of Athens to a standstill for eight days and gained the support of transport workers in other sectors, who walked off their jobs in solidarity; this sent a message of hope for the radicalization of the unions and European labor in general.

While Syriza races against time, in the short period since this “Coalition of the Radical Left” exploded into the European political scene it can count a number of successes. In June of 2012 Syriza ran for election on the following platform:

1) Negotiations for debt cancellation, with provisions for the protection of social insurance funds and small savers.

2) A pan-European tax on wealth, financial transactions, and profits.

3) Nationalization/socialization of banks, and their integration into a public banking system under social and workers’ control.

4) Immediate reconstitution of the minimum wage, and reconstitution of real wages within three years.

5) Immediate reconstitution of collective labor agreements.

6) The introduction of direct democracy and institutions of self-management under workers’ and social control at all levels.

7) Speeding up the asylum process and abolition of Dublin II regulations and granting of travel papers to immigrants. Social inclusion of immigrants and equal rights protection.

Syriza scared the hell out of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF. The backlash was a carefully orchestrated and viciously executed international media campaign. Against all odds Syriza managed within a month to raise its share of the electorate from 16% to almost 27%, and came very close to winning the elections.

The greatest successes of Syriza, however, are not all its own. Syriza appeals to and is co-instituted along with an increasingly radicalized people who have been mobilizing beyond and against the traditional lines of party politics. As Costas pointed out, Syriza has been present and active within the manifold protest movements that emerged once austerity was imposed. And I will elaborate a little further here providing some examples.

From the Greek Indignados, who occupied for months the Syntagma square, the central square of Athens in 2011, to the metro workers who led the recent strikes organizing through popular assemblies, to the anti-fascist groups who fight Golden Dawn face to face on the street of Athens, to the neighborhood committees which along with immigrant workers organize and stage protests, it is evident that the strongest opposition comes directly from the people of Greece. By that I do not mean just ethnic Greeks but people of all ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds who live and work in Greece and who have equal rights to work, justice and freedom.

Since 2009, general strikes and popular mobilizations have destabilized and eventually brought down two different governments. By November 14, 2012, when a general strike was called across Europe, Greece would go to a national stoppage for the 21st time in the last two years. In general, workers and trade unions are caught up in a fragmented labor market characterized by what are called “flexible” employment conditions. They face an unequal struggle against employers who have been greatly invigorated by recent legislation. Yet, other forms of resistance have greatly hampered the government’s austerity plans.

Financial resistance has been elevated almost into supreme civic duty. Small business owners collectively resist paying the new increased taxes and fees. Some city councils have encouraged their citizens not to pay the taxes imposed by the government through the electricity bill, always under the threat of electricity cuts, while providing the necessary legal coverage. As a result thousands of households resist these practices of rampant taxations imposed on the lower and middle strata of the Greek society. Movements such as the “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay” mobilize precisely around these kinds of efforts. Also, in many parts of the country, people try to circumvent the austerity by adopting a bartering system. These may be tactics of survival under the extreme conditions of the economic crisis but they also constitute revolutionary practices which challenge not merely the government’s policies but the system of capitalism at its roots.

Syriza, as you already heard, is a coalition party that plays host to various left-wing organizations, ranging from revolutionary socialist to radical reform-oriented and to many unaffiliated individuals. While moving towards becoming a more unified political group Syriza held its first national conference at the end of November 2012, yet, it does not adhere to traditional party politics. While this might be a circumstantial occurrence it also constitutes a success for despite the challenges that the party faces from within in its effort to bring together such a diversity of views and political outlooks and despite the pressures from the outside it still weathers out the storm while in the process it builds something new in the Greek political scene.

Yet, Syriza has not always successfully dealt with the challenges. In an effort to balance parliamentary and street politics it has in many occasions remained on the sidelines or only belatedly joined grass roots initiatives and movements. Most importantly, Syriza often finds itself trapped in a discourse carefully orchestrated by the media and the think tanks adhering to the current government about “legality” and “lawlessness.” I will provide you with the following examples. In December of 2012 riot police raided what is known as Villa Amalias, a building occupied for more than twenty years now by anarchists, anti-authoritarians and anti-fascists. When the building was re-occupied 92 people were arrested and were released only after 10,000 people in Athens protested in solidarity. Similar attacks have taken place against other long-term occupations in an effort to suppress what the government identifies as anomie and violation of the public order. When Syriza was called to address the issue, the party was painted in the media as anarchist sympathizers prone to violence and unlawful attitudes. This communication trick has been one of the hardest to challenge with a counter discourse about the imperative of civil disobedience at moments when the “rule of law” systematically violates civil and human rights.

The government and its accomplices in the media have found tremendously successful the old narrative about the “two extremes”: the extreme right, a role that the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is successfully encouraged to play, and the extreme left, which in this line of thinking is represented by Syriza. In the background of this discourse memories and images of Stalinism have been particularly evocative.

Another example, closely related to the above. The new year started with a string of attacks with Kalashnikovs at the New Democracy’s party headquarters, journalists’ homes and the house of government spokesman’s brother and was topped with the explosion of a device at a major shopping mall in the northern suburbs of Athens. The organization which took up responsibility for some of these actions has not been heard off before, while the media have made a systematic effort to connect these to the Villa Amalia and other occupations.

In the midst of so many things that have happened since then, personally, I had entirely forgotten these incidents, and especially the Kalashnikovs! We were reminded of them this past Thursday, however, by Nikos Dendias, the Greek Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection. He was in New York at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and during his talk about the quantitative and qualitative changes that violence is undergoing in Greece and the need for the police to adjust accordingly he mentioned those Kalashnikovs twice! Following that, the narrative about the extreme Left and the extreme right fell once again right into place!

However, this is not the greatest of the challenges Syriza has to overcome stressing that protest, dissent and civil disobedience are imperative in the process of social change and the defense of democracy. The greatest challenge and probably the greatest failure of Syriza has been in articulating and clearly communicating a program that on the one side will be open to adjustments according to future developments and contingencies and on the other will be based on some clearly defined objectives. It is only on the basis of such clarity and also courage that Syriza will be able to solidify and probably expand its electoral basis. Syriza, time and again has made it clear that it is neither a utopian nor a revolutionary party. Yet, we live through events that require revolutionary practices and a vision clearly fixed in a future that will be strikingly different than what we have so far experienced.

Continued: Iannis Delatolas

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