The left in Europe must draw the lessons from Syriza’s defeat


On 12th July what for the time being was the final act of the Greek tragedy came to an end. The hope that the left government could lighten the appalling lot of the people had not been realised. The agreement signed on that day means not only that Syriza’s moderately left programme has been abandoned, but also that Greece will continue on the path of harsh austerity and neoliberal reforms.

The agreement means a punishing programme for the Greek people rather than a rescue package. The Greek government will have to cut spending by some €3.8 billion p.a., with health care and social security the principal targets. Pensions must be reduced and taxes increased. Food prices will go up a great deal, a consequence of higher rates of VAT. Charges on small firms will go up greatly too - and this will happen in the short term - as a result of the fact that enterprises must pay 100% of their 2016 taxes in advance, on top of their regular taxes for 2015. At the same time the legal system is to be subject to fundamental reform, so that it won’t be the ordinary citizen, but the banks and major corporations who will be presumed to be in the right. The new system even makes immediate evictions possible in cases where the householder owes money either to the bank or to the revenue service. At the same time the richest will be spared as a result of the Troika’s direct interventions. At the beginning of August the Troika asked the Greek government to exempt incomes over and above €500 million from a special solidarity tax, because not to do so would lead to increased tax evasion.

The results of the latest austerity agreement will become visible within a couple of months: once more thousands of firms will go bust, unemployment will rise still further from its current level of 27%, hundreds of thousands more households will hardly be able to make ends meet, tens of thousands more people will be added to the homeless tally and real poverty will grow to an even greater level than its current 40%.  According to the IMF the national debt has risen to 200% of GDP and is therefore completely unsustainable.

The most likely scenario for the immediate future is one of political and social chaos in Greece. Given that the austerity policies are so harsh that the agreement will prove impossible to implement, Greece is becoming a troika protectorate. Syriza is in this way being transformed into an austerity party. The left and the radical elements within the party are already marginalised. A political vacuum has been created. There are two potential forces which could fill this vacuum : a broad movement of  left and grass roots movements ; or the extreme right Golden Dawn. This extreme right party remains, it’s true, for the time being out of the picture – because its leader is behind bars – but will certainly profit from any further defeat of the left.
How did things get this far?

Even before the elections of 25th January Syriza had a clear strategy on how to carry out its programme. The impression which has been created that Syriza was an extreme left party is simply wrong, because the party had already clearly chosen to adopt a moderate programme which did no more than combat the worst consequences of austerity policy. In contrast to what the European Commission and the Dutch media repeatedly proclaimed, their policies could certainly have been implemented and paid for without recourse to fresh loans. It was not long before the essence of the conflict between Syriza and the troika was evident. The problem was neither the practicality of Syriza’s policies nor what they would cost. The problem was and remains that the Greek government’s programme could not be tolerated by the European Union, the ECB and the IMF. In times when austerity and budgetary discipline are presented as the only alternative in Europe, the political success of an anti-austerity government was unacceptable to the European elite. Eurogroup chair and Labour Party finance minister in the Dutch coalition government Jeroen Dijsselbloem issued his then Greek counterpart Yanis Varoufakis with an ultimatum : if the Greek government did not persist with austerity policies, the troika would allow the country’s banks to go bankrupt. A few days before the referendum of 5th July, this threat was made explicit.

Was there any alternative ?

The last six months revealed that Syriza had two options : to comply with all of the troika’s demands, or radically change direction by breaking with the EU. Just like then right-wing PM Samaras in 2012, Tsipras took the easy way out and decided to accept a third round of austerity. The alternative would not have been an easy choice. The ECB would immediately cut off the money supply. Greece would have been expelled from the eurozone and from EU membership, and the European elites would have begun an economic war against Greece. However, a radical but at the same time well-thought out plan would have offered many opportunities to the Greek people. The emergency plan would have had to contain the following ingredients:

 Leave the Eurozone and the EU immediately, so that the government can pursue its own monetary and economic policy without the restrictive (or rather, neoliberal) regulation of Greek finances and trade by the EU.
 Halt repayment of the national debt in order to give the government the financial space to combat the humanitarian crisis and implement its own economic policies.
 Nationalise the banks so that they can provide finance for public and private investments.
 Reverse spending cuts so that both the people and the economy can breathe again.
 Support grass roots initiatives so that sustainable economic growth can be promoted from the bottom up. In Greece there are countless initiatives on the local level which enable people to trade products, and sometimes to produce them too (as in the case of VIO.ME, which has been taken over 100% by the workers) and provide services.

Looked at technically this solution is perfectly achievable, given that there are  €27.4 billion circulating in the Greek economy which can’t immediately be declared invalid by the ECB and a further €75 billion in bonds and loans in the possession of Greek banks, money which is out of the ECB’s reach.

Beyond the technical matter of carrying the plans out, support from the people for this radical emergency plan would have been extensive. The results of the referendum of 5th July show that the victims of austerity (the poor, the young and the middle class) have rejected the policy en masse, despite the unprecedented blackmail by the Greek and European media and by EU officials. Even after the agreement of 12th July there were big demonstrations in Greece against the diktat. The left organisations which have taken the lead in the latest street protests are the Communist Party (KKE) and a relatively new coalition of left anticapitalist groups, Antarsya. Antarsya was formed in 2012 and enjoys relatively high levels of support amongst young people. Members of Antarsya have been active in all recent protests by the workers’ and students’ movement.

The Greek question and the left in Europe

Greece’s future also depends in part on the attitude of the left in Europe. What Syriza’s leadership has completely failed to take into account in its decision to acquiesce in this damaging and impractical agreement is that following the referendum a large number of left organisations and individuals in Europe were clearly prepared to actively support the Greek people’s demands. The reverse is also true, however: the outcome of the left’s struggle in Greece influences the position and the popularity of the left throughout Europe. It isn’t for nothing that following Syriza’s defeat on 12th July, the popularity of the Spanish left party Podemos fell by 15%. The left in Europe must draw the lessons from Syriza’s defeat. We can’t defeat neoliberalism by fighting it separately in every country. We must together formulate the  principles of a left programme and with this build a left movement in Europe. We should not, for example, balk at the writing off of the (in this case Greek) national debt. Such hesitation (even on the part of Podemos) persuaded Syriza to drop the demand for a partial write-off at a very early stage of the negotiations. Furthermore, the left in Europe should also not be shy of talking about the European Union’s real nature or of its attitude to the Greek question. Not a single reform which would benefit the people is possible in the eurozone or in the broader EU. We must be rid of this EU and of the euro; not because we are against political, economic and cultural cooperation between the different peoples, as are the extreme right, but because we are against the principles upon which the present form of cooperation is based. This EU is bringing about a redistribution of power and of incomes to the  advantage of elites, and even greater tension amongst Europe’s peoples. Our vision must be one of a Europe in which people’s rights come first; where the right to education, health care and social security come before banks’ profits, and democracy is built from below.

Dimitris Pavlopoulos is a sociologist at the Free University of Amsterdam (VUA). He is in addition a member of ReINFORM, a political grouping of Greeks in the Netherlands which stands to the left of Syriza.