The pro-bailout right may have won the Greek elections, but as a powerful opposition force, the Left may yet be more subversive than in government.
The nightmare continues. Greece and the world will wake up tomorrow to headlines proclaiming yet another Pyrrhic victory for the Monsters. In the end, the sustained blackmail campaign of the neoliberal prophets of doom proved more effective than Tsipras’ radical message of hope. With the pro-bailout Nea Dimokratia edging in a narrow victory over the anti-bailout Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), the disastrous EU/IMF-imposed austerity memorandum appears to have survived yet another major popular challenge.
Yet while I wholeheartedly sympathize with those who mourn SYRIZA’s defeat — including some of my (anarchist!) friends in Athens — I can’t help but feel that these results might actually be the best outcome for both Greece and the Left. Not because we somehow fear taking power, as Žižek falsely argued, but first and foremost because, in the context of a collapsing state, this power would have been illusory to begin with — and secondly, and most importantly, because this illusory power would have been the surest way to disarming the Left.
It is no coincidence that stern rumors have been doing the rounds in Greece over the past weeks that many in SYRIZA, including its leader, Alexis Tsipras, actually preferred for Nea Dimokratia to win and form a new government. As Krugman put it in rather simplistic and unflattering terms, “there’s a meme in Greece to the effect that Syriza didn’t really want to win, because it would rather see the current government flail some more.” The Guardian cites analysts saying that Tsipras “was exactly where he wanted to be: ‘a close second’.”
In opposition, controlling anti-austerity protests and pressure on the street, there is widespread consensus that the radical leftists are bound to pick up support. A weak government mandated to pass yet more unpopular austerity measures could ultimately collapse. Many do not exclude fresh elections by the end of the year.
“There is widespread suspicion that to come a close second was Syriza’s ultimate aim,” said Dimitris Keridis, a professor of political science at Athens’ Panteion University. “As a very strong and powerful opposition it will be able to bide time until new elections, when it could easily win an absolute majority. Tsipras is up and coming and he will use the time to mature.”
Had Syriza come first, it would have come under pressure to dilute its vehement anti-austerity rhetoric. “The only way to disarm it of its populism is to have it in power,” said Keridis.
There was a terrible lot of almost naïve enthusiasm about SYRIZA’s expected victory: just look at Costas Douzinas’ statement that “this is how revolutions occur”. Those who put their hopes on a SYRIZA win may be disappointed now, but might yet be vindicated a few months down the line as a shaky coalition of Nea Dimokratia, PASOK and the Democratic Left, despite having won marginal concessions from Angela Merkel, battles to extricate itself from a collapsing financial sector, a rapidly shrinking economy and an imploding state.
Whatever superficial pledges Samaras and his neoliberal friends may pretend to make, the odds of a Greek exit from the euro are still just as real. As I pointed out elsewhere, having SYRIZA preside over such an exit could potentially have had disastrous consequences for the Left. A euro exit will inevitably be accompanied by severe popular unrest as the government is forced to impose capital controls and bank withdrawal limits. As during Argentina’s infamous ‘corralito‘ of 2001, banks will shut down and the state will be forced to protect them as depositors scramble to withdraw their savings.
But even in the absence of a euro exit, since Greece still runs a primary budget deficit (and since SYRIZA’s economic program only forsaw a 1 percent increase in tax revenues by 2013), a SYRIZA-led government would ironically have had to preside over a deepening rather than an overthrow of austerity measures. Locked out of foreign capital markets as a result of prohibitively high borrowing costs, this means SYRIZA would either have had to magically convince the EU and IMF to continue disbursing loans despite the government’s refusal to implement their conditionality — or it would have had to cut back even further.
In the process, SYRIZA’s legitimate claim to change and its genuine intention to radically transform Greek society would have been stalled in their tracks. Taking power now, far from strengthening the cause of the Left in Greece and Europe, would have fundamentally undermined it from within. There are, of course, wider questions over whether or not taking power is a desirable revolutionary strategy to begin with — a theoretical question raised by John Holloway in his famous book, Change the World Without Taking Power, to which we can return later. For now, suffice it to say that SYRIZA, even though it suffered an electoral defeat today, might actually emerge even stronger.
The one-eyed Samaras may well find himself standing on his last legs as he and his party stumble headlong into the abyss of their own self-destruction. While the Monsters have survived yet another onslaught of popular resistance, this time through the ballot box, the scenario hasn’t changed much. The revolution, in the end, will still be made in the streets, squares and workplaces — not in government ministries. And with SYRIZA as the country’s most powerful opposition force, the institutional Left will still be able to credibly align itself with the movements when the streets explode in outrage once more.
The nightmare may continue — but so will the struggle. “We will be vindicated,” Tsipras correctly exclaimed after conceding defeat to Samaras in a phonecall. “The future does not belong to those who terrorise, but to those who hope.”