by Don Nonini
Most progressives here in the United States know little about Greece, a small country of 10 million people, with approximately the same population as North Carolina. They know even less about Syriza, the new party now in power whose leader Alexis Tsipras has become the Prime Minister after the January 25 elections of this year. Why should we pay attention to Syriza, and what’s going down in Greece today?
Prior to the January 25 elections, Syriza has become best known in the world press for its anti-austerity policies in which it demanded the renegotiation of the onerous loan conditions imposed on Greece by fiat by the Troika of the IMF, European Central Bank, and the European Commission with the compliance of conservative Greek governments beginning in May 2010. Five years of such loans by these neoliberal transnational loan sharks have led to massive unemployment (26% of the Greek workforce and 50% of Greek youths are unemployed), wages have fallen by 38% since 2009 and pensions by 45%, the GDP has gone down by 25%, 32% of all Greeks fall below the poverty line and 33% have no national health insurance. There have been huge cutbacks in government benefit programs in pensions, healthcare, and education. During the winters, Athenians who can’t afford to pay for heating oil have cut down and burned trees within the city to keep warm (New York Times February 3, 2013). Huge privatization projects forced through by the Troika in Greece like the Canadian-owned El Dorado Goldmine in Halkidiki have led to widespread despoliation of the Greek environment.
As a result, there has been almost universal misery among Greeks. The only exceptions have been the few extraordinarily wealthy Greek oligarch families and the political elites of past Greek governments who together played a major role in bringing about the debt crisis through systematic tax evasion, capital flight, and corruption. The large initial debt burden brought about by these abuses has been multiplied several times over by the Troika and conservative Greek governments who have imposed such austerity measures on the Greek population, which has led to an economic depression. To claim that most ordinary Greeks had any role in making these decisions would be an outlandish libel. For its part, Syriza promises to end such compliance with Troika demands, which the new Greek Minister of Finance, Yanis Varoufakis, has aptly called “fiscal waterboarding,” by insisting on the renegotiation of these loans and requiring a haircut for wealthy European, especially German, creditors, while allowing the Greek population to recover. What happens to Greece under Syriza government matters to us in the US for several reasons.
First, Syriza members of Parliament and other members of the party have been active in promoting many of the local and regional institutions which are alternatives that progressives support here in the US, but unlike many people in the US, Syriza leaders see these new institutions as part of a national movement. These include more than 400 organizations – worker and consumer cooperatives, food solidarity centers and social kitchens providing food to those who are hungry, free health clinics, legal aid centers, “without middlemen” markets selling discounted farmers’ produce directly to eaters, and many related organizations. Almost all those who lead and staff these organizations are members of Syriza. Since 2012, Syriza’s MPs have voted to give 20% of their monthly salaries to a solidarity fund to support these activities, while many MPs individually have contributed even more. Although many of these institutions have come into existence out of sheer necessity, along with others such as factory takeovers, local currencies and barter exchanges, they could provide the basis of the civil society support which will make possible Syriza’s capacity to sustain the Greek people in the face of what almost certainly will be a ferocious and vindictive onslaught by the Troika to force Greece to maintain the austerity policies that have led the Greek people to pauperization and misery.
Second, what Syriza and its civil society organizations are now attempting to do is providing great encouragement to anti-austerity parties elsewhere in Western Europe, such as the Podemos (“We Can”) party in Spain, which is rapidly becoming an important electoral force with its anti-austerity program. In fact, what Syriza is not only calling for but also attempting to implement is a European-wide political movement against the neoliberal policies of austerity by the Troika, which Syriza correctly sees as not only a violation of human values, but also as having co-opted and destroyed democratic institutions at the popular level in Greece and elsewhere in Europe.
Third, and as a warning to some people in the US who are more alarmed about racist intimidation and xenophobia than they are concerned about class-based social injustice, it is abundantly clear that if Syriza as ruling party fails in in its current efforts to institute the new anti-austerity measures it has promised (e.g., cancellation of a major part of the debt, increase in wage and pension levels, subsidies for rents, provision of free electricity and food for hundreds of thousands of households now going without), then the next predictable step in the political process for Greece and elsewhere where the EU led austerity programs have been imposed is the election of extreme-right governments and the rise of fascism. The Golden Dawn party, the Greek fascist party, came in third in the January 25 elections. In the event of Syriza’s failure, Golden Dawn will be its logical successor, and a very different kind of Europe-wide encouragement of movements – of fascist ones instead – will occur. This is something that should concern all of us.
Syriza has a hard road to follow. In addition to holding off the Troika, and reducing the intense social misery of the Greek population through its civil society programs, it also needs to lead Greece in reforming institutions that have been abused by oligarchs and political elites for years (e.g., tax evasion, corruption in public service) in concert with EU neoliberal policies, if Greece is going to survive as a democracy. Within Syriza the dangers of troika attempts to co-opt the party leadership are real. As one Syriza MP put it, “This means that we need to be careful within the party. In Marxist terms: class struggles are everywhere, even inside the party.”
Nonetheless, the Syriza leadership and the Greek people appear to be up to the challenge, well aware of the risks involved, and of what is at stake. It will be crucial in the weeks, months, and years ahead for American progressives to show solidarity with their efforts.
For more information: see Jon Henley, “Greece’s Solidarity Movement: ‘It’s a Whole New Model – and It’s Working’” at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/23/greece-solidarity-movement-cooperatives-syriza?CMP=share_btn_link and Greek Independent News at http://greekindependentnews.net/la/?la=en.
Don Nonini is a member of Communecos, and a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Standard disclaimer: his views do not represent those of the University of North Carolina (in part because he has better things to do).