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Athens, 10 June 2012
WE DREAMED A DREAM
We conclude our reports from Greece with a series of reflections on the leftwing political group Syriza.
Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) was the reason we came to Greece in the first place. Our first post on the group on 15 May 2012 reflected our hope that here at last, for the first time since the French revolution, a radical leftwing political party was within a shout of taking power in western Europe.
It is still possible that Syriza may be the party that secures the most votes when the country goes to the polls next Sunday 17 June, for the second time in five weeks, to elect a parliament. The first ballot failed to produce a political configuration that could command a majority in parliament.
Opinion polls attempting to predict the outcome of the election put Syriza neck-and-neck with the rightwing New Democracy party as the party that will win the most votes. The stakes could not be higher. This is because the party that comes top will benefit from the extraordinary Greek election rules that give an extra 50 seats to the party winning the largest percentage of the vote, ie over-and-above the number of seats it has won straightforwardly on the basis of proportional representation.
However, even if Syriza beats New Democracy, it will not be the case that a radical leftwing party is about to take power in western Europe. You can forget about the French Revolution. They may not wear ties, but this party knows how to behave.
To understand Syriza, you have to imagine yourself back in Spain in 1982 when the 42-year-old Andalusian Felipe González scored a landslide victory on behalf of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, of which he was Secretary-General. Expectations in Spain then, as in Greece now, were astronomic – but turned out to be misplaced.
Montes parturiebant, est natus ridiculus mus.
González was in power until 1996 but began to jettison pre-election socialist commitments almost from his first day in office.
Here is a passage on the González government from Wikipedia:
Having promised in the election to create 800,000 new jobs, his government’s restructuring of the steel industry actually resulted in job lay offs. When they tried to similarly tackle the debt problems in the dock industry in 1984, the dockers went on strike. The UGT, or Workers’ General Union, called a general strike on 20 June 1985 in protest against social security reforms. The same year his government began a massive privatization, partial or full, of the 200 state-owned companies as well as the hundreds of affiliates dependent on these companies.
The 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras is chair of the Syriza party, which consists of a coalition of leftwing groups. We hope we are wrong, but it is the view of Antigone1984 that Tsipras is the Greek Felipe González.
We come to this view after considering, to the best of our ability, his party’s proposals and their presentation by party spokespersons.
Sadly, Syriza’s programme sounds mostly very reasonable. It is largely what you would expect in the election manifesto of a bog-standard European social democratic party. British Labour Party leader Ed Milliband’s advocacy of “responsible capitalism” comes inevitably to mind.
Some aspects of its programme are so anodyne that any political party of any persuasion could agree to them, such as ending tax evasion, cutting red tape and helping small businesses. Some are genuinely progressive but only to an extent that would be acceptable to any social democratic party, eg reforming the tax system so that the rich pay more than the poor, raising unemployment benefit, freezing wage reductions, halting pension cuts and reversing cuts in the minimum wage.
The core of Syriza’s platform is a rejection of the austerity package forced on the Greek people by the Gang of Three – the European Central Bank (Frankfurt), the European Commission (Brussels) and the International Monetary Fund (Washington) – in return for a super-loan bail-out to enable Greece to keep paying back capital and interest to banks in the countries providing the bail-out from which it had borrowed money. Geddit? The austerity package is known as “the Memorandum” in Greece and the more refined term for the Gang of Three is the Troika.
Syriza seemingly wants to reject the austerity but to keep the super-loan.
However, the Gang of Three are standing firm. They have told the Greeks: “if you want the loan, you do the austerity”.
The austerity package involves a ruthless pruning of the public sector – jobs, pensions, pay, benefits and services. It is a classic programme of the kind the IMF traditionally imposes on Third World countries in exchange for funding.
Syriza is claiming that it will negotiate with the Troika to get a better deal. Moreover, while rejecting the Memorandum, Syriza stresses that will take no unilateral action that might lead to sanctions against it.
Syriza is not going out on a limb when it pledges to renegotiate the austerity package. Almost all the other parties competing in this election are saying that they too will renegotiate. That includes New Democracy and the nominally socialist PASOK party, both of which signed up to the Memorandum in the first place.
The English-language weekly “Athens News” asked Yiannis Dragasakis, Syriza’s economic spokesperson, the following question:
“Is it correct to say that a Syriza government would refrain from any unilateral act of abrogation of the memorandum of understanding and the loan agreement with the country’s EU-IMF creditors?
“What we have made clear in our election platform and in the letter Alexis Tsipras sent to top eurozone officials last month is that we want the memorandum policies to be replaced with a programme for the rehabilitation of Greek society, the reconstruction of the economy and fair fiscal consolidation. For two reasons: firstly, because the memorandum has been voted down by the electorate, thus depriving it of political legitimacy; and, secondly, as an economic programme, the memorandum has been catastrophic and cannot continue. But the transition from one programme to another will be the result of planning, consultation and negotiations by the new government. It is self-evident that Greece’s relationship with the European Union is not an external relationship but a multifaceted one of structural independence between our country, EU institutions and member states. Consequently, under no circumstances can we imagine a resolution of problems arising from conflictive procedures instead of consensual agreements.”
The last two sentences will be music to the ears of the Brussels bureaucracy. While America shoots first and asks questions afterwards, the procedure in Brussels is the reverse. In fact, it never comes to shooting as far as the EU is concerned. This is not because they are innately less bellicose there than they are in America. It is because the Europeans ALWAYS win in negotiations. Negotiations are the hydrogen bombs of the European bureaucracy. Unlike hydrogen bombs they are in constant use. Like hydrogen bombs, however, they can obliterate all resistance. These people have been polishing their negotiating weaponry since the Common Market was formed in 1957. They have painstakingly negotiated the admission to the union of 27 countries with a joint population of 500 million people. Worn down by five, six, seven years of negotiations with Brussels, one by one all 27 of these countries threw in the towel and gave up their national sovereignty. The European negotiator knows every trick in the book. They never lose, those guys from the Berlaymont.
So now this minnow of a country, Greece, with its economy in tatters and its population of 11 million, is going to “negotiate” with the EU. Tell us another. The arguments of the Greek negotiators will be as effective as a gnat’s bite on the hide of an elephant. Oh, they will get something. Oh, some crumbs will be thrown to them. That is how Brussels negotiates. The time Greece has in which to repay its loans will be extended, the interest to be paid will be reduced, some elements of the Memorandum will be reworded in Greece’s favour. No matter which parties win the Greek election. But at the end of the day, the Europeans will win, Greece will fall into line, and the market will rule, OK?
In any case, Greece has already given them what they want. The euro is the spearhead of the European project to create a homogenised market-oriented United States of Europe. The collapse of the euro would set that project back decades and might even lead to the break-up of the Union. The departure from the euro of even a piddling little state such as Greece could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Spain might be next. After that, who knows?
By coming down in favour of retaining the euro and turning a blind eye to the cogent economic arguments for a return to the drachma, Syriza has rejected the chance to recover the independence of Greece as a nation state, preferring instead to remain a bleating sheep within the European fold.
It could all have been so different.
The radical alternative would have been to jettison the euro for a devalued drachma. This could be accompanied by a full or partial cancellation of the country’s debt, following the path laid down by Argentina at the turn of this century. The result would be fewer imports and more exports (including a massive boost to tourism). Indigenous Greek businesses would mushroom to replace the now too-expensive imports. It is a policy that is favoured by a great many – even mainstream – economists.
In a recent interview with Le Monde, Syriza’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Rena Doulou, said she wants the Greek people to become “a model of resistance to financial capitalism”. The party, she said, wants to put the accent on a spirit of public and cooperative enterprise with a view to sustainable growth and the satisfaction of social needs. Syriza will reform public finance, provide incentives for small and medium-sized enterprises, and create jobs (particularly in hospitals and schools). As a result, “instead of being Europe’s guinea-pig,” she believes that Greek society would become a new model for the people of Europe – “a model which resists the logic of financial capitalism”.
Syriza seems to be blissfully unaware that every country that joins the European Union must agree to run a free-market economy. The market economy is the bedrock upon which the European Union rests. Even if transitional arrangements allowing temporary state intervention are permitted, in the long term the state (representing the people) must hand over the running of its economy to the private businesses. That is why, throughout Europe today, successful state-run railways and postal services are currently being handed over, often at bargain-basement prices, to private firms.
The Syriza programme is, in some ways, diametrically at variance with EU rules. For instance, Syriza says it wants to suspend the flow abroad of Greek bank deposits and to recall money that has already fled the country. But capital controls -being contrary to the free market – are tabou in the European Union.
One specific Syriza foreign policy commitment is to withdraw from Nato “in the long term”. However, as Keynes said, “in the long term we are all dead”. Spain-watchers will smile at this point. Leaving Nato was a non-negotiable principle for Felipe González. The inevitable U-turn followed when he came to power.
Oh, well, it was a good dream while it lasted.
And, after all, like Paris, Athens is always worth a mess.
ΓΕΙΑ ΣΑΣ !
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich (6 Feb 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.