After Greece’s bailout — lessons for the left

Issue 
Alexis Tsipras.

It had been planned to be a lavish celebration on the Pnyx hill next to the Acropolis in Athens where the citizenry would hold popular assemblies in the ancient democratic period.

The angry aftermath of the forest fires last month put paid to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hosting European Union and other luminaries in such a way. The event was to mark the formal end of the country’s subordination to the austerity memorandums enforced on it by the “troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund.

Instead, Syriza’s Tsipras made a more low-key broadcast to the nation from the island of Ithaka on August 20.

He proclaimed in an overly extended image that Greece had ended its painful Odyssey of eight years of crisis. He did so against the backdrop of the harbour to which Odysseus is held to have returned after a decade of tortuous voyage.

Few in Greece were taken in by the theatrics and self-identification of Tsipras as Homeric hero. Some recalled a previous Greek prime minister declaring a new dawn for the country from a remote island.

It was at the onset of the crushing austerity period in 2010 that Pasok’s then-PM George Papandreou said pretty much that from the island of Kastelorizo off the Turkish coast. He informed the country that he was going to sign up to the first memorandum with the troika.

“Despite the cheap communications tricks in sheltered harbours the truth cannot be concealed,” quipped a sharp-witted politician of the left. His name was Alexis Tsipras.

Bailouts for banks, pain for people

Eight years on and the truth cannot, indeed, be hidden. The imposition of neoliberal solutions on Greece has been a catastrophe.

The economy has shrunk by about a quarter and average living standards by a third. The resulting social dislocation and suffering is enormous.

Several business commentators have hailed a slight fall in overall unemployment figures to possibly under 20% (youth unemployment is double that). But few point out that one in 10 of the working age population of Greece has left the country in the crisis years. That is the principal reason why the figures are not higher still.

Those who have left show no indication of returning to the country. A basic measure of civilisation, the capacity to provide for the wellbeing of a stable or expanding population, has not been met.

The enforced economic exile of a tenth of the population is not “free movement”. It is the involuntary sacrifice of people to the dictates of corporate capitalism.

The bailouts had nothing to do with alleviating the economic condition of the mass of Greek people. They were to save the zombie European banking system.

The first bailout was to rescue the mainly French and German banks exposed to defaulting Greek debt.

The second bailed out the private Greek banks. The third, the one Tsipras signed up to, aimed at ruthlessly at driving through the privatisations, welfare cuts, assaults on workers’ rights and “modernisation” of the economy that the first two pledged but had not accomplished.

All of this was driven by the troika imposing — with willing cooperation from the Greek elites and their old political parties — an economic dogma whose predictions of a return to growth were refuted year after year.

Those congratulating themselves on the “success” of Greece need to be reminded that the neoliberal economists’ forecast of a return to growth after two years turned out to be six.

It also meant a severe truncation of democracy and of national sovereignty. One EU official after another bluntly stated that to stay in the bloc and the single currency meant that democratic expressions of the mass of people — elections and referendums — had to be put aside.

Tsipras averred to this in his Homeric address on August 20 as he took aim at his predecessors from 2009 to 2015 for sinking the country.

He criticised a system in which “bankers become politicians and politicians become bankers”. It was a thinly veiled reference to the ECB banker Lucas Papademos who became an unelected prime minister in 2011, and to the former finance minister Yannis Stournaras who became governor of the Greek central bank — in reality a branch office of the ECB — in 2014.

The right-wing New Democracy opposition party and business press squealed that a Greek prime minister was taking political pot shots — which otherwise has never happened, of course.

With elections due within the next year, they would like everyone to forget their responsibility for the imposition of the memorandums and for the oligarchic model of capitalism that preceded it.

Left strategy

But Tsirpas’s point begged the question. If that was the old capitalist cronyism linking Greece’s political class to Greece’s economic elites and the mafia dons of the European capitalist institutions, then why on Earth did he, in his first acts in government, pledge confidence in the governor of the central bank, assure the military of continued arms spending and an expansionist foreign policy, and commit to staying in the euro straitjacket come what may?

Here, light-minded explanations based on personal failure or a narrative of betrayal will not do.

For anyone serious about breaking from this failing phase of capitalism, the Greek experience raises fundamental questions of strategy for the working class movements and the left in Europe.

The Syriza government was essentially a social democratic evolution out of Greek communism, which had been for most of the 20th century the main expression of working class and radical politics in the country.

Its strategy for escaping the murderous austerity memorandums was to rest on two things. First, obtaining a majority in parliament. Second, to deploy rigorously developed economic arguments with the EU and creditors as to why austerity had to be lifted.

The problem was twofold. As attested by various participants, including Syriza’s first finance minister Yanis Varoufakis in his memoir, a majority in parliament did not mean control of the levers of the state.

That was especially so, as for two years before coming to office, Syriza had gone out of its way to reassure those permanent state mechanisms that it would not disrupt their power and the continuity of capitalist interests.

The mantra was “we are a government in waiting”. So from senior police officers to the central bank and the permanent bureaucracy of the finance ministry, the government was undermined from day one.

The second was a naive faith in the power of a logical argument against those bound by a thousand golden threads to refusing to accept it.

Everyone could see that austerity and the economics behind it were not delivering the promised recovery in Greece. But the European elites and their politicians could not admit the truth.

If Greek debt was unsustainable, then so was that of Spain, Italy and others. If, seven years into the crisis, it had to be admitted the emperor had no clothes in Greece, then it meant telling people from Britain to Bulgaria that their suffering had been for nought also.

A seemingly modest shift to a more rational organisation of the economy entailed the most profound political risk. So they didn’t do it.

And that logic persists. Bridges are falling down in Italy and hundreds more are in a parlous state in Germany, despite it having the biggest trade surplus in the world.

The editorial writers of the international business paper the Financial Times make a persuasive case for a large boost to infrastructure spending. But no major government is listening.

Greece is out of the formal memorandum period, but is still constrained by quarterly inspections to make sure the failed god of neoliberal capitalism is being satisfied.

The prospect of a return to borrowing from the global markets looks more and more remote as the Turkish currency crisis and the impact of rising interest rates on emerging economies such as Brazil and South Africa risks another credit crunch.

Fascist threats and left opposition

Throughout all of this the working class movement in Greece has managed to sustain opposition, despite demoralisation, ebbs and flows.

That, and the intervention of that part of the left who took seriously this strategic dilemma, has meant that predictions of a huge fascist resurgence out of the failure of Syriza in office have not been realised.

That danger is far from over. It will not be met by pre-election orations from the island of Ithaka.

It’s going to require more of the kinds of things that are being posed elsewhere in Europe and in Britain: popular and militant opposition to austerity. A much more serious strategy for radical change is also needed than just positing a government in waiting.

And a popular anti-racist movement is needed, whose horizons go beyond some conventional politics of occupying a ministerial position.

The neoliberal nostrums failed in their purported aims in Greece. But failed too was a timid, commonsense strategy of the left.

The journey hasn’t ended. The ship is still in treacherous seas.

[Reprinted from Morning Star Online.]