Syriza: For Better or For Worse
Unfortunately, Early Signs are Not Encouraging
The victory of Syriza in Greece is a historic turning point for Europe and the world, for better or for worse. I fear it’s going to be the latter.
Syriza claims to be something more radical than a social-democratic party. In a pre-election interview in Jacobin, Stathis Kouvelakis, of Syriza’s Central Committee and its Left Platform, calls Syriza “an anti-capitalist coalition” that has “little to do with any agenda of any European social-democratic party today. It is an agenda of really breaking with neoliberalism and austerity.” Syriza’s commitment to a “dialectic” of electoral tactics with “struggle and mobilizations from below” is an important sign of its radicalism.
Syriza’s rise did correspond to the collapse of Pasok, the Greek social-democratic party, and marks a dramatic shift of working-class voters to the Left. It represents the Greek people’s rejection of the devastating austerity program imposed by the Troika (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank — now renamed the “Institutions”) and all capitalist-to-the-core political parties, no matter what name they go by. Portuguese activist Catarina Príncipe proclaimed: “The success of Syriza is the success of the Left that refused compromises with liberalism.”
Syriza’s 40-point program and its Thessaloniki Program embody this radicalism. The former includes: nationalization of the banks, audit and renegotiation of the public debt, suspension of debt payments, restoration of the minimum wage, a 75-per-cent tax on high incomes, a tax on financial transactions, re-nationalization of privatized public services, a 30-percent mortgage subsidy for poor families, demilitarization of police and prohibition of police firearms during demonstrations, ending military cooperation with Israel, cutting the defence budget and withdrawal from NATO. The Thessaloniki Program promises a “National Reconstruction Plan that will replace the Memorandum as early as our first days in power, before and regardless of the negotiation outcome.” It includes electricity and meal subsidies, housing guarantees and a program for 300,000 new jobs.
This is the more-than-social-democratic Syriza the Left was hoping for. Syriza has promised to embrace the opportunities for systemic change inherent in a crisis that is infuriating millions, and to break definitively from the capitalist TINA (There Is No Alternative) consensus, towards a social economy controlled by and for the people.
If Syriza fights this battle, it will energize left populist forces throughout Europe, as Kouvelakis says, “provok[ing] an enormous wave of support by very large sectors of public opinion,” and, “energiz[ing] to an extent that we cannot imagine the radical Left.”
This would be a historic change for the better.
But the crisis has led to a rise of the right as well, raising the stakes: “If Syriza fails, then the prospects for the country will be very reactionary and authoritarian … people are aware … that this is the only real possibility, and that, if we are defeated, then this will be a defeat for a whole forthcoming historical period.”
This “Syriza moment” now is the game for radical Left populism, and if the Greek and European Left does not quickly and decisively build on it, toward a socialist alternative, radical right populism will move into the vacuum. The worst defeat here would not be to fight and lose, but to be “defeated without a fight.” If Syriza ends up accepting some modified neo-liberal austerity program, it will signal to people throughout Europe that the purportedly new radical party still believes There Is No Alternative to rule by bankster capitalism. It will demoralize whatever real Left remains and leave Europe open for a tide of right-wing, neo-fascist populism that will seize the day.
Unfortunately, I think this is the road Syriza is on.
Syriza, a heterogeneous alliance that includes radical Keynesian reformists as well as revolutionary socialist militants, is only ambivalently “anticapitalist.” Kouvelakis argues that it has also become “a leader-centered party,” where the leadership often “disregarded the party decisions,” “didn’t give a big enough role to social mobilizations and movements” and “softened some crucial edges of the program.”
Alex Tsipras and the party leadership cultivated what they call “creative ambiguity,” speaking in “a kind of double- or triple-level discourse” adjusted for the audience. This raised the suspicion that they were being deliberately vague about “crucial strategic issues,” including their determination to “resist the pressure … a Syriza government will have to face.”
So, the Syriza leadership is prone to ignore the will of the base and to undercut the “dialectic of electoral alliances … with struggle and mobilizations from below” that was its signature radicalism. Not promising.
Furthermore, however radical its discourse when addressing its class base and progressive European audiences, the underlying theory guiding the current leadership walks and quacks like plain-old social democracy.
Syriza: Greek for TINA?
Although it’s contested within Syriza, the theoretical paradigm of new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis provides the clearest indication of how the Syriza leadership understands its mission.
Varoufakis, a former Pasok advisor, “came out of the proverbial closet” as an “erratic Marxist” in a 2013 “Confession,” claiming that “Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day,” while acknowledging that his academic and political career “does not have a whiff of Marxism in it.” Indeed, he dedicated himself to studying capitalist economics. His radical intellectual strategy consists of “immanent criticism,” which means “to accept the mainstream’s axioms and then expose its internal contradictions.”
Varoufakis has produced some sharp, Marxist-influenced analyses of the Greek predicament, and he certainly has an intellectual formation and an understanding of the Greek-European crisis beyond that of your mainstream Eurocrat.
He also proposes a clear and limited solution to that crisis: “It is the Left’s historical duty … to save European capitalism from itself and from the inane handlers of the … crisis” (i.e., to become the smart handlers of the crisis).”
And a fuller version:
“[T]he Left must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapsing European capitalism will open up with a functioning socialist system. … Our task should then be twofold: To put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well-meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. And to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilizing Europe. … Ironically, those of us who loathe the Eurozone have a moral obligation to save it!” (His exclamation.)
For Varoufakis, European capitalism is “indefensible … anti-democratic, irreversibly neoliberal, highly irrational.” Yet, he “tirelessly strives … to save that system.” He would “much rather be promoting a radical agenda whose raison d’être is about replacing European capitalism,” but he cannot, because his “agenda [is] founded on the assumption that the Left was, and remains, squarely defeated.”
It follows that, as much as Varoufakis wants to persuade the Troika to mitigate austerity policies, he wants “to convince radicals that they have a contradictory mission: to arrest European capitalism’s free-fall in order to buy the time they need to formulate its alternative.” (His italics.)
What is it that Syriza will and will not do? Insofar as Varoufakis’s theory underlies the leadership, Syriza’s does not just lack, but must refuse to have, a strategy for “replacing European capitalism” — because any such attempt will inevitably lead to the victory of the fascist right.
This logic merits some immanent critique.
Sure, a fight for a socialist alternative could end up losing to the right. In a situation of social crisis, however, that will always be the case. It’s politically ridiculous to say you should not fight for socialism unless you know you can win.
Do we know we’re going to lose? In the actual situation, Syriza’s victory – the Greek people’s unprecedented choice for the Left – is already reverberating throughout Europe. In Frankfort, thousands of people, including hundreds from Syriza and Podemos, took to the streets to protest the ECB, and organizer Ulrich Wilken called it an “act of solidarity” with the new Greek government.
To say, in such a conjuncture, that the Left is “squarely defeated,” that you know a struggle for a socialist alternative will lose to the right, is … well, as Varoufakis admits, there is “more than a kernel of truth” in calling him “defeatist.”
Those who accept Varoufakis’s argument should acknowledge they are giving up altogether on building socialism. For them, that battle is always-already lost: In a relatively prosperous social-democratic capitalist economy, the working classes won’t demand socialism; and in a failing, crisis-ridden capitalist economy, they will inevitably be seduced by the radical right. The time is never right to fight for socialism; we’re always limited to stabilizing capitalism. TINA reigns eternal.
Following this logic, Syriza’s maximum program, beyond which it must not try to go, is a partial restoration of Old Europe’s social democracy. For Varoufakis, that means programs like… Food Stamps!
“In the U.S., food stamps (bons d’alimentation) have allowed hundreds of thousands of households to get out of poverty. Why not use the profits of the Eurosystem … to finance such food stamps in Europe?”
Radicals in disintegrating European social democracies must be convinced to work for a version of the cheap American welfare state. Maybe we can replace the public healthcare systems that banksters are targeting with EurObamacare.
So Tsipras’s doublespeak and Varoufakis’s “contradictory mission” reflect not just “creative ambiguity” for Troika negotiations, but a deliberate ambivalence about the party’s political objectives, and a simmering contradiction between the “defeat” the leadership has assumed and the momentum of the class forces who are not in this to lose yet again — and are not going to be satisfied with food stamps.
Of course, there is no good choice for Syriza or for Greece. Defying the Troika brings down the full wrath of international capital. So we should give the Syriza leadership ample room for “creative ambiguity” with their Eurozone interlocutors.
Still, acknowledging it’s not the final move, the interim agreement that Varoufakis accepted in February is a retreat that, as Kouvelakis says, “backtracks” on Syriza’s “commitments towards the people that brought it into office.”
The leadership calls the four-month extension “breathing room” for negotiations that it hopes – virtually insists – will result in a new comprehensive agreement that will satisfy the Institutions and the Greek people. But Syriza only got this “breathing room” by reaffirming Greece’s “unequivocal commitment” to honour all its financial obligations “fully and timely,” and by committing not to make any changes that would “negatively impact fiscal targets… as assessed by the institutions.” Everything, including “the review of the extended arrangement” after the four months, is “subject to approval by the Eurogroup.”
Thus, Syriza has already reneged on its pledge to start implementing the National Plan “regardless of the negotiations on the debt,” and, by subjecting any implementation to the prior approval of the lenders, has effectively annulled it.
Varoufakis really seemed to think of the negotiations as a colloquium, where he could dazzle Eurozone leaders with a “frenzy of reasonableness” and “immanent critique.” He would say: “I shall not contest your assumptions but here is why your own conclusions do not logically flow on from them,” and the three Troika heads would say: “Wow, we never thought about it like that before. You are right. We’ll do things your way.” Together, as he told the New York Times, they would “dissolve the creditor-debtor distinction in favour of a pan-European perspective (that) places the common European good above petty politics,” and save European capitalism from itself.
And I am sure he can, and did, make a better argument than the Eurocrats’, in their own economic terms. And I’m sure they didn’t give a damn. Because it is not about who’s right, but about who controls power and wealth.
Hey, Yanis: You’re right and we don’t care. They’re just not that into him.
As Jerome Roos says, in ROAR: “To put it bluntly, Germany and its allies are just not interested in negotiating a debt restructuring … Their entire strategy is based on being as unreasonable as possible and not granting Syriza a single inch of leeway.”
Varoufakis has confirmed Peter LaVenia’s point, in Counterpunch, that “It is always the case that sincere Left-reformist social democrats like Syriza understand how to save capitalism from itself,” but they overestimate “the desire or need of the capitalist class, especially in the EU, to rescue the periphery as a consumer zone, when they instead prefer to plunder it.”
And Patrick Smith puts it nicely, in Salon:
“It is not about a logical way out of the euro-crisis, which is perfectly possible. It is about the neoliberal war against alternative thought and the elevation of the market above all other values, including democratic process and ordinary decency. The commanding generals in this case are headquartered in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin.”
Nobody’s good argument will sway the commanding generals, who have their own lesson plan, which Kouvelakis elucidates: “By teaching the Syriza government a lesson, they simultaneously issue a warning to Podemos and any other force in Europe that may attempt to challenge austerity, the memoranda and debt peonage.” For German Chancellor Angela Merkel & Co, all their European “partners” must learn that there’s only one shade of neoliberal grey, one master, and one acceptable posture: submission.
To be clear, Kouvelakis does not say Syriza “sold out,” and he emphasizes the unfavorable balance of forces Syriza faced in the February negotiations. Still, he insists that “We have to be honest about the fact that it is a retreat.”
Even more troubling for him, “more serious than the retreat itself,” is “the fact that … the leadership of Syriza … presented it as almost a success.” This, he warns, “prepares the ground for another and further defeat,” because it deliberately avoids preparing people for the inevitable confrontation.
Syriza’s resistance to the Troika means nothing without an “or else.” If Syriza is not willing to take Greece out of the euro, it is all bluff. Varoufakis himself said: “Simple logic dictates that if you cannot even conceive the possibility of leaving a negotiation, then it is preferable never to enter one.” But he also said: “Greece will neither want to leave the euro nor threaten to do so.” Not so simple, Yanis’s logic.
Varoufakis wavers on his only trump card because he knows that a “Grexit” will, in the short run at least, bring enormous pain to the Greek people (and therefore, in his understanding, usher in the right). But many in Syriza acknowledge that staying in the Eurozone is probably irreconcilable with Syriza’s program, and are determined not to sacrifice it to the euro. Costas Lapavitsas, another maybe-Marxist economist in Syriza, argues forcefully that the Eurozone is a “rigid array of institutions with an embedded ideology,” that “wasn’t going to budge” to accommodate Syriza. To confront the Eurocrats seriously, Grexit must be on the table. As Lapravitsas says, in Jacobin , echoing version A of Varoufakis’s “simple logic”: “If you tell them that you’re not prepared to press the nuclear button … then obviously you weaken yourself enormously.”
But having a serious “or else” means that you start building alternatives immediately — you initiate specific policies “to show to ordinary people that we meant what we said.” Syriza needs a transition plan that prepares for Grexit, energetically and publicly, while negotiations are in progress. This would require honestly confronting Greek citizens with the stark choices between their rejection of Eurozone austerity and the deeply embedded “European” identity ideology that has polls showing over 75% support for remaining in the euro “at all costs.” There can be no positive radical alternative unless Syriza’s base understands the difficulties, and is fully engaged in formulating a program that has a decent chance of a positive outcome within a perceptible horizon.
As Lapravitsas says, Syriza “should ask for popular validation. … And it should ask for popular action. Because the only strength of a Left government is that. Nothing else. It is not technical expertise, though we’ve got some of that. It is popular support.”
Syriza cannot be the political movement it claimed to be, and cannot win any amelioration from the Eurozone banksters, except through that energizing dialectic with mass movements – in Athens, Madrid, and even Frankfort. If the Eurocrats concede anything significant on austerity, it will be only if they fear effective power mobilized in the street, threatening a more radical outcome. That is the only kind of “immanent criticism” the Troika will respond to.
And, as Kouvelakis warns, if Syriza does not start preparing an alternative “starting immediately, … it is certain that in four months … a new defeat, and I think a final defeat, somehow will come.”
Let’s not forget that the Eurocrats have their own reasons to fear a Grexit, which would threaten the demise of the Eurozone – which is, as Eric Reguly points out in The Globe and Mail, a monetary arrangement that keeps afloat Germany’s “juggernaut of endless current-account and trade surpluses.” There’s a question, as he puts it, whether Germany will allow Greece to leave the Eurozone.
Can Varoufakis cook up some just-right, Euro-palatable, progressive porridge that will satisfy both the Eurogroup and the Greek people? Maybe. But when the BBC asks him if Syriza would really write off half of Greece’s debt, and he says: “No, no, no, there is a lot of posturing before every negotiation … there has been a bit of posturing on our side,” I have a pretty good idea whose tongue will be burned.
There Is No (Such) Alternative
If Syriza saves capitalism from itself, the result won’t be to make socialism more possible. It will be to shore up the “indefensible, anti-democratic” rule of capital for a very long time.
And in a worse form. The idea that you’re going to talk the commanding generals of neoliberal capitalism back into social democracy ignores the history of the last thirty years. Wasn’t European neoliberalism precisely a war on social democracy? Wasn’t it carried out with the connivance of the social-democratic parties? Once the masters of capital did away with whatever post-capitalism the USSR embodied, did they not turn to administering the coup de grâce to European social democracy? Who, of the neoliberal executioners Syriza will be talking to, is about to let any of that back from the grave they put it in?
LaVenia nails it:
“Syriza has arrived on the scene decades after the last meaningful acts of social democracy could occur. Capitalism in the core has long since ceased to need to make deals with socialist parties as representatives of an industrial proletariat; those jobs have been replaced by shifting industrial work to the periphery as the capitalist world-system tends to do specifically as a counter to the success of mid-century social democracy.”
Again, the only thing that would incline the Eurocrats to allow a whiff of nouveau social democracy is precisely some threat of Left socialism. It’s not: “If you want socialism, fight for capitalism,” but: If you want some kind of revived social democracy, fight for socialism.
Varoufakis may think he can scare the liberal (center-right) capitalists with the spectre of the radical right, but they will never fear and reject the radical right as much as the Left. These are the liberals who put Nazis into power in Ukraine! (And with what economic rationality!) Would they have considered supporting any insurrection, anywhere, that was half as radically Leftist? In a crisis, ruling-class “Institutions” radicalize to the right.
Meanwhile, what about those other reforms Syria was supposed to enact “regardless of the negotiations on the debt?”
Mortgage subsidies, restoration of the minimum wage, restoration of public health services? “There would be no explosion in public spending by the new administration,” Varoufakis “pledged” to the Financial Times.
Disarming police during demonstrations? The first day in office, the Interior Ministry announced: “The police will have weapons at protests.”
Demilitarization of anti-insurrectional troops, reigning in defence spending and withdrawal from NATO? In his first statement, as reported by the WSWS, the new Defence Minister, Panos Kammenos of the right-wing ANEL Party, “pledged to find funds for new armaments programs, maintain current ones and review new threats to security.”
Defence-related issues are directly relevant to any anti-austerity agenda. As the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported, Greece’s military spending is “the highest in the European Union as a percentage of gross domestic product” and a significant factor in Greece’s debt.
Syriza’s all-important pledge to stop the privatization of national assets, like the Port of Piraeus? The WSJ citied a finance-ministry official saying: “The Piraeus sale is on. It will proceed as planned.”
So, Syriza’s 40-point program? Never mind. There’s a lot of posturing, you know.
No one was expecting the quick fulfillment of Syriza’s program. Everyone understands that the anti-capitalist Left faces powerful resistance from the European institutions in which Greece is still enmeshed, as well as from that popular “European” identity ideology.
So, okay, Syriza didn’t want to press for full-on socialization, or even public ownership of the banks and some key industries. But how about a few elements of public control, or at least sticking with the anti-privatization agenda they promised?
There are countervailing tendencies. Kouvelakis and Lapravitsas and their Left Platform comrades are still a part of Syriza, and at a contentious meeting in February, over 40 per cent of the central committee repudiated the February agreement. Even more biting, perhaps, was the reaction of 92-year-old Manolis Glezos, a hero of the Greek Resistance who tore down the Swastika from the Acropolis in 1941, and a Syriza MEP: “I apologize to the Greek people for having assisted this illusion. … Before the wrong direction continues. Before it is too late, let’s react.”
So, in a move that angered creditors, Syriza shored up its populist credentials with a “humanitarian crisis bill,” that will provide food, rent allowances, and electrical power for up to 300,000 households. It also includes what Tsipras calls “an electronic Citizen Smart Card that … the needy will also be able to use … to pay for groceries and electricity” — the techno-realization, I guess, of Varoufakis’s “food-stamp” humanitarianism.
Further, Tsipras promises to contest the legitimacy of debt agreements and to bring up the billions in reparations that Germany is said to owe Greece from World War II. He has also held conspicuous meetings with Vladimir Putin and Gazprom officials, which, Russia Insider reports, he “framed … as necessary to relieve ‘stifling economic conditions’ set by Europe’s creditors.” This maneuver is widely seen as a bid to elicit American pressure on those creditors to ease up on Greece.
Those creditors don’t seem to be fazed. At the April 24th meeting in Riga, Eurozone ministers “put a stake in the Greek government’s hopes that a deal would be forthcoming by the end of the month,” as Foreign Policy reports, and ridiculed Varoufakis as “a time-waster, a gambler and an amateur.” In response, Tsipras kinda-sorta replaced Varoufakis, appointing Euclid Tsakalotos, another maybe-Marxist but less “charismatic” economist, as the point man in face-to-face negotiations, while keeping Yanis as the titular (or perhaps actual) head of the delegation. It’s all somewhat confused, and they seem to have substantively similar perspectives, but most observers agree with Michael Roberts’s perception that this move “suggests that the Syriza government is preparing to make more concessions to the Troika.”
So Eurozone ministers proclaim they are fed up with Syriza’s attempt to avoid their demands, and signal that they can “ring-fence” a Grexit. As the WSJ reports, Greece staying in the Eurozone “is no longer the base case for many policy makers.” At the same time, The Telegraph cites a “senior Greek official” saying, “We are a Left-wing government. If we have to choose between a default to the IMF or a default to our own people, it is a no-brainer,” and tells us that Greece is “drawing up drastic plans to nationalise the country’s banking system and introduce a parallel currency.”
Wow, showdown. Except, Tsipras tells Der Spiegel that everything will “have to be approved by the eurozone finance ministers” and, according to the NYT, “insisted that Greece does not want to leave the eurozone.”
It’s hard to know, then, what’s defiance and what’s doublespeak. There’s a whole lot of posturing on both sides going into the new absolutely final (but probably not) deadline of May 11th. Given the interests and ideologies of all the major players, it’s as likely as not that Syriza and the Euromeisters will cobble some “extend and pretend” compromise that indulges their common hope for the unity and irreversibility of the Eurozone and for Greek recovery on a capitalist basis. Because, for all of them, There Is No Alternative.
All this reminds us that the crisis Syriza confronts has roots and consequences far beyond Greece, that it’s produced by a global system in which elected governments no longer serve their people but, as Pepe Escobar puts it, “have become tools of a global central banking system serving the interests of giant international financial institutions,” a system in which, “toxic central banking is now enshrined as a mortal enemy of democracy.”
The Syriza moment is an unprecedented popular challenge to that system. We are not certain how the struggle between the various tendencies within Syriza and on the streets will finally turn out. But very soon, all the creative ambiguities will give way to conclusive decisions. Syriza will choose either confrontation or capitulation, and it will be clear which it has chosen. It will either subordinate the demands of the Greek people to the institutions of European finance capitalism or take another radical and difficult path. Syriza will either upend the established European capitalist order or submit to it — and watch some other force do the upending.
After all the posturing, Syriza is going to have to be, as the man said, as radical as reality. Or not.
Sebastian Budgen with Stathis Kouvelakis, “Greece: Phase One,” Jacobin, January 22, 2015.
“Confessions Of An Erratic Marxist In The Midst Of A Repugnant European Crisis,” Yanis Varoufakis Blog, December 10, 2013.
Peter A. LaVenia, “The Death of Social Democracy,” CounterPunch, February 26, 2015.
Stathis Kouvelakis and Alex Callinicos, “Syriza and socialist strategy,” February 25, 2015, SWPOnline (YouTube)
Stathis Kouvelakis, “Is Syriza Retreating?“ Jacobin, February 19, 2015.
“Five urgent questions: radical left Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas on Friday’s deal,” Counterfire, February 23, 2015.
Costas Lapavitsas interview: “Greece: Phase Two,” Jacobin, March 12, 2015.
Eric Reguly, “Blame Germany for Greece’s uphill euro zone struggle,” The Globe and Mail. April 24 2015.
James Petras, “Lies and Deceptions on the Left: The Politics of Self Destruction,” Information Clearing House.info, March 22, 2015.
This article appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (Battling Austerity).