Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s rising star, is a radical in name only

  • June 6, 2012

Authority & Abolition

For Europe, the leader of SYRIZA is a dangerous Greek populist. For Žižek he is a voice of reason. In truth, he is just an outspoken social democrat.

In recent weeks, he has been called sexy Alexithe rising star of Greek politics; a foe of austerity; a fiery orator and eloquent, skilled performer; and the champion of Greek outrage — as well as a naive radicala dangerous liara populist demagogue; and a cranky extremist. Suddenly in the limelight, the 37-year-old leader of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) is now known as the Greek who sent global markets roiling and who makes Europe tremble.

Two months ago, no one outside of Greece had ever really heard of Tsipras or his fringe patchwork alliance of Maoists, Trotskysts, euro-communists, democratic socialists and greens. But a month after SYRIZA, running on a pledge to overthrow the Troika’s austerity memorandum, beat the center-Left PASOK to place as a surprise second in the failed elections of May 6, Tsipras is suddenly the most sought-after Greek politician in the international media.

As befits his unexpected rock star status, the new champion of the European Left quickly went on a tour to Paris and Berlin, and yesterday found himself flanked and supported by Slavoj Žižek — “the most dangerous philosopher in the West” — during a public lecture in Athens. With the last poll ahead of the June 17 elections showing his party in a 6% lead over right-wing Nea Dimokratia, things appear to be looking up for the Greek revolution. Or are they?

In truth, a SYRIZA victory will do little to revolutionize Greek society and much less to free Greece from the neoliberal shackles of the eurozone. While Tspiras’ heart undoubtedly beats on the left side of his chest, SYRIZA’s policies will do more to stabilize than to overthrow the discredited and dysfunctional system he despises so much. Indeed, for all his eloquence and good intentions, Tsipras promises little more than radical social democracy. The only reason SYRIZA is considered far-Left is because the center has moved light years to the right.

Tsipras’ Revolution to Save Capitalism

“The incumbent economic and social system has failed,” declares SYRIZA in its list of programmatic commitments, “we must overthrow it!” Pledging to break up the EU-ECB-IMF austerity memorandum, impose an immediate moratorium on all debt repayments, and negotiate a radical reduction of the remaining debt, the Coalition of the Radical Left has sent shivers up the spines of the Greek political establishment, European leaders, and financial markets alike.

But while further debt relief would undoubtedly harm creditors and spare Greece many years of austerity, the idea that debt relief as such is a “radical” departure from economic orthodoxy is itself an ideological aberration. As early as September last year, the German Economy Minister proposed the idea of an “orderly Greek default”, while a former World Bank economist involved in the restructuring of Mexican debt in the 1980s described the solution proposed by Tsipras as “both the right one and an orthodox economic textbook idea.”

Similarly, the idea that austerity has a counterproductive effect on debt reduction is hardly revolutionary. The IMF recently admitted as much when it released a report stating that “fiscal contractions are contractionary, not expansionary.” (DUH!). By declaring that European money “should go towards investments and growth,” Tsipras finds himself literally echoing the words of former World Bank Chief Economist and Wall Street homeboy Larry Summers.

The New York Times rightly observed that “Mr. Tsipras’ arguments are not so different from those of some of the leaders gathered at the Group of 8 summit at Camp David.” In an interview with the Guardian, Tsipras expressed his admiration for Keynes and the expansionary monetary and fiscal policies of Obama and the Fed. And as Tibor Scitovsky, a prominent Keynesian economist, once put it, “Keynes’ revolution was that he was trying to save capitalism.”

Euroshackles and the Structural Power of Creditors

But perhaps the most contradictory element of SYRIZA’s program is its pledge to stay inside the eurozone. “For us,” Tsipras told the neoliberal Kathimerini newspaper, “exiting the euro is not an option.” Given electoral preferences (85 percent of Greeks wants to keep the euro) this stance makes perfect sense. Yet it is completely incompatible with SYRIZA’s stated objective of pursuing growth and job creation. There are three main reasons for this.

First of all, the euro is one of the principal sources of Greece’s current predicament. If Greece had had its own currency, not only would it never have experienced such a vast inflow of foreign credit, it would also have been able to devalue its currency to regain competitiveness in foreign markets. This is what Argentina did in 2002. But bound to the shackles of the euro, Greece was left with no other policy option than a so-called internal devaluation of wages.

Secondly, the moment Greece joined the euro, it gave up its monetary policy autonomy, meaning it became dependent on the European Central Bank to set interest rates. As a notoriously orthodox monetarist institution, the ECB is not only ideologically opposed to expansionary policies, but also constitutionally forbidden to pursue them. While Tsipras has called for radical reforms of the ECB, this remains — at least in the short-term — a pipe-dream at best.

Thirdly, membership of the eurozone has left Greece “entrapped” and subjected to the structural power of its creditors. As the political economist Jonathan Kirshner has pointed out, “structural power refers not just to the manipulation of the rules of the system” in favor of the big banks, “but also to the dependence that is cultivated through the simple act of participation in a monetary system.” As Costas Lapavitas wrote in the Financial Times two weeks ago:

If Greece perseveres with current policies within the eurozone, its economy will shrink and stagnate. The country will become an impoverished, ageing and deeply unequal corner of Europe, a neo-colony in all but name … Default ought to be accompanied by exit, releasing Greece from the trap of monetary union … Exit would allow the lifting of austerity, giving Greece the breathing space it needs to restructure its economy.

Deepening Austerity — And Then What?

Yet even if Tsipras wanted to stay inside the eurozone, he couldn’t. Tsipras’ insistence that Europe won’t allow Greece to fail (for fear of the crisis spreading to Spain) is a beautiful game of chicken, but there is absolutely no guarantee that it will work. Indeed, what are the odds that the Germans — already outraged about throwing money into the “bottomless souvlaki” — will continue bailing out a Leftist government that loudly proclaims it won’t pay them back?

Consider the following (very realistic) scenario: SYRIZA wins the elections, forms an anti-austerity coalition and halts the debt repayments. Greece will almost certainly be denied the next tranche of its EU-IMF bailout. Since the country is still running a 2.4 percent primary deficit and will be completely cut off from international capital markets, SYRIZA will have to impose even deeper cuts than are currently required under the austerity memorandum.

At the same time, the moratorium on debt repayments and the cessation of ECB assistance to Greek banks will make the Greek financial sector implode. At this point, SYRIZA will be faced with a choice: either it allows its entire banking sector to collapse, literally destroying the livelihoods of millions of Greeks, or it nationalizes the banks, as it pledges to do in its election program. If it does the latter, it will need to print money to be able to raise the requisite funds.

To be able to print money, Greece will have to reintroduce the drachma. Its value would immediately plunge in relation to the euro, so the government would have to impose capital controls and withdrawal limits to prevent a run on the banks. Argentina did just that in 2002 with the infamous ‘corralito‘. It unleashed mayhem. The people attacked the banks and the Presidential Palace. When that happens in Greece, where will Tsipras’ allegiances lie? As his voters turn against his banks and his ministries, whose side will he be on?

The Limits of the Parliamentary Road

There is no doubt that Alexis Tsipras is genuine in his concern for the Greek people and that, if it could, SYRIZA would save millions of Greeks from destitution and depression. Having arisen as an organizational platform for the Greek delegation to the anti-globalization protests in Genoa in 2001, there is also no doubt that SYRIZA is globally conscious, friendly to social movements, and by far the most grassroots-oriented party in the Greek political system.

In a recent article for the London Review of Books, and then again in a public lecture in Athens, Slavoj Žižek heaped praise on Tsipras. SYRIZA’s voice, he writes, “is not the voice of extreme left ‘madness’, but of reason speaking out against the madness of market ideology.” Furthermore, “in their readiness to take over,” Žižek hopefully exclaims, “they have banished the left’s fear of taking power; they have the courage to clear up the mess created by others.”

Yet the realistic scenario sketched out above shows the limits of the road to power. As Leonidas Oikonomakis recently pointed out in an important ROAR article, Tsipras risks becoming a Greek version of Argentina’s Kirchner — a populist social democrat using radical rhetoric to ride a wave of popular unrest, achieving an improvement in living standards, but demobilizing the movements and allowing the system to reproduce itself. As Benjamin Dangl summarized, “Kirchner was handing out crumbs, when what many demanded was revolution.”

It is no coincidence that the revolutionaries of Tahrir and Chiapas are publicly boycotting the upcoming Egyptian and Mexican elections. Earlier today, the EZLN simply stated: “I don’t vote; I organize from below.” Yesterday, we published a piece by our comrades in Cairo who write that “We refuse to recognize the choice of the ‘lesser of two evils’ when these evils masquerade in equal measure for the same regime. We believe there is another choice.”

Those Who Make Revolutions Halfway…

Paris. May 29, 1968. Faced with a spectacular popular insurrection and the largest wildcat strike in world history, a demoralized Charles De Gaulle, convinced that revolution is near, leaves the Élysée Palace by helicopter and flees to Germany. There, General Jacques Massu convinces him to return, upon which De Gaulle makes a last-ditch attempt to save the state: he calls elections. Smelling power, the Communist Party agrees. The rest, as they say, is history.

The revolutionary sentiment in the streets subsided. As the parties stepped up their campaigns, the workers returned to their jobs. On June 16, the police retook the Sorbonne. One piece of graffiti remained on a wall in the Latin Quarter: “Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié ne font que se creuser un tombeau.” Those who make revolutions halfway only dig their own graves. A week later, De Gaulle won the elections. The largest landslide in French history.

Athens. May 25, 2011. Hundreds of thousands occupy Syntagma Square and set up their own autonomous political spaces across the country. Building on the same principles of direct democracy that inspired the French revolutionaries of ’68 (captured in the libertarian socialist ideas of the Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis), ordinary Greeks are introduced to a radically different form of social organization. Millions catch a glimpse of Utopia.

A year later, we are approaching elections. The revolutionary sentiment in the streets has subsided. As the parties step up their campaigns, the workers have returned to their jobs. On May 15, the police retook Syntagma Square after a group of activists tried to pitch up their tents. Underneath a bridge in the outskirts of Athens, one piece of graffiti remains: two clinging hands desperately reaching out for a burning euro coin. A street vendor walks past. An echo of the past whispers in the background. Those who make the revolution halfway…

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