'No' voters in Athens hold up a sign. Photo: Orestis Panagiotou
For two weeks now, political time has been condensed in Greece, and citizens live on the edge of their seats, struggling against forces that appear well beyond their control. On June 27, the Syriza-led government put the ultimatum of the creditors to a referendum and campaigned for a NO. The outcome of the referendum — a resounding rejection of perpetual austerity and continued debt bondage — will go down in history as an outstanding moment of dignity of a people under vicious attack by European creditors and the Greek elite.
Despite the patriotic overtones, this outcome was the culmination of five years of resistance to the steady downgrading of our lives. It signified breaking free of the choke-hold of the mass media, rising above fear to make the people’s voice heard. It ratified the absolute discrediting of the political elites that have been ruling since the democratic transition of 1974, which campaigned for a YES.
Furthermore, the outcome revealed a society divided along class lines: the middle and lower classes, which have so far born virtually all the cost of austerity and structural adjustment, overwhelmingly voted NO. Nevertheless, the outcome resists the attempts of all political parties to capitalize on it; it is the categorical negation of the present political and economic arrangement, the refusal which necessarily precedes all acts of social self-determination.
However, less than a week after the referendum, the Greek government submitted a new proposal of financing to its creditors, tied to a package of austerity measures even harsher than the ones rejected in the referendum. After a weekend of ‘negotiations’, which revealed a rift among Greece’s creditors, a humiliating agreement was reached early on Monday, which all but turns Greece into a European debt colony.
How was this NO metamorphosed into a YES in a matter of days?
As many analysts expected, the government’s strategy of using the popular verdict as a means of pressure in the negotiations backfired. Upon returning to the negotiation table, the hardliners around German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble made clear that they are prepared to let Greece go bankrupt — with all the economic and political implications this would have for the Eurozone — rather than see the slightest crack in the neoliberal austerity discipline.
The Syriza-led government found itself in a harsh and pressing dilemma: it would either have to oversee the implementation of a new neoliberal adjustment program, or it would have to assume the political cost of a bankruptcy, with all its disastrous effects on the Greek population.
It opted for the first, thus officially putting an end to this five-month stand-off between the Greek government and its so-called European ‘partners’. The terms of the capitulation are painful, as they go against the totality of Syriza’s campaign promises: the new memorandum, even more so than the previous two, is an extreme experiment in social engineering and in redistribution of wealth in favor of the powerful. It maintains many of the unjust measures implemented by previous governments, such as ENFIA, a transversal tax on small property that has turned the lower class families into tenants within their own homes, or the abolition of the untaxable income limit for the self-employed, which makes it impossible for most skilled workers to get out of the unemployment trap.
The new deal also revamps and possibly renames TAIPED, an institution created to sell off all public assets, with all basic infrastructure, such as ports, airports and the power grid company, due to be privatized. Furthermore, the deal demands the lifting of the moratorium on home foreclosures, opening the road for a raw exercise of dispossession that threatens to create a humanitarian disaster, as we know from the Spanish experience. On top of that, it envisions an increase in indirect taxation, a hike in the prices of foodstuffs and transport as well as cuts in wages and pensions through a rise in social insurance contributions.
All in all, a package of measures designed to further compress the middle and lower classes, increase recession and unemployment, destroy the small and medium businesses, which form the backbone of Greek economy, and hand over all public assets and common goods to transnational capital. All the while perpetuating depression and increasing the debt burden, effectively crippling Greece’s economy and destroying the country’s capacity to get out of the crisis on its own feet.
The creditors went out of their way to ensure the measures are as punitive as possible. To further humiliate their opponents, they demanded the immediate voting in of reform laws and the return to Athens of the Troika supervisors, who were banished by the Syriza-led government in the early stages of negotiation.
The arguments of government officials and party cadres defending the ‘positive’ aspects of the deal are risible, as they echo the arguments of all previous governments that there is long-term prospect for the Greek economy and that the cost of the adjustment will not be transferred to the underprivileged. It is more honest to see the agreement for what it is: a large-scale operation of dispossession, a sacrifice of a whole country in order to maintain the delusions upon which the Eurozone was built.
It seems that this is the end of the road for Syriza’s ‘national salvation’ government. It will be called to vote in and implement an austerity package that not only disregards the struggle of the anti-austerity movements of the past five years, of which Syriza was once a part, but also betrays the verdict of the 61% of Greeks who voted against austerity only a week before.
Of course many would argue that this is a collective gamble gone wrong, and in front of the “partners’” blackmail the government took the least painful way out. There is no doubt that a disorderly Grexit, along with the punitive measures that would be employed by neoliberal hardliners to make an example out of the Greeks, would in the short-term be a disaster, primarily for the popular classes. In any case, political developments will be swift: the government will surely be reshuffled or replaced, and Syriza faces an internal rift that could mean the end of this party as we know it.
A contradictory relationship
For about three years, grassroots social movements in Greece had deeply contradictory sentiments towards the electoral rise of Syriza. On one hand, the prospect of a left government was an opportunity to bring the conflict to an institutional level; after all, many of the demands of the struggles were reflected in Syriza’s program and the party always kept a movement-friendly profile.
On the other hand, Syriza has been an agent of demobilization, ending the legitimation crisis that gave a protagonistic role to the social creativity and self-determination of the movements, and by promoting the institutionalization of the struggles, the marginalization of demands that did not fit into its state management project, and the restitution of the logic of political representation and delegation, which promoted inaction and complacency.
At the same time, Syriza cultivated the illusion that real social transformation was possible without breaking with the mechanisms of capitalist domination, without calling into question the dominant economic paradigm, without building concrete bottom-up alternatives to capitalist institutions, without even calling into question the country’s permanence within a monetary union that by design favors the export-driven economies of the North in detriment of the Europe’s periphery.
Syriza’s leaders detached themselves from the party base and their former allies within the movements, and stubbornly resisted a public debate on the elaboration of a ‘Plan B’ outside the Eurozone, should the ‘Plan A’ of an ‘end to austerity within the Eurozone’ fail, for fear that this would be used against them by the pro-austerity opposition as proof that they had a hidden agenda from the very start.
Unfortunately, recent developments tend to confirm the views of those who claimed that, given the extreme delegitimation and fragility of the previous government, a new memorandum was only possible through a new and popular ‘progressive’ government. This is probably the role that Syriza unwillingly ended up playing, using its ample reserves of political capital.
Lifting the veil of illusion
Syriza’s failure to deliver on any of its campaign promises or to reverse the logic of austerity lifts the veil of illusion regarding institutional top-down solutions and leaves the grassroots movements exactly where they started from: being the main antagonistic force to the neoliberal assault on society; the only force capable of envisioning a different world that goes beyond the failed institutions of the predatory capitalist market and representative democracy.
Undoubtedly many honest and committed activists are linked to the Syriza party base. It is their task now to acknowledge the failure of Syriza’s plan, and to resist the government’s efforts to market the new memorandum as a positive or inevitable development. If Syriza, or a majority part of it, decides to stay in power — in this governmental arrangement or in some other, more servile, put in place by the creditors — and oversee the implementation of this brutal memorandum, it is the task of the party base to rebel and unite with other social forces in search of a way out of barbarity, to break the ranks of a party that might quickly be turning from a force of change into a reluctant administrator of a brutal system they have no control over.
The role of the left, broadly defined, is not that of a more benevolent manager of capitalist barbarity: after all, that was social democracy’s original purpose, a project that exhausted itself already in the 1980s. There can be no ‘austerity with a human face’: neoliberal social engineering is an attack on human dignity and the common goods in all its guises, right-wing and left-wing.
I have argued elsewhere that the NO in last week’s referendum was ambivalent, and the struggle to give meaning to it has only just begun. Hours after the announcement of the result, Prime Minister Tsipras interpreted the verdict as a mandate to ‘stay within the Eurozone at any cost’. It is evident, however, that the new ‘bailout’ package obviously is outside his mandate: Plan A, Syriza’s only plan, envisioning an end of austerity without challenging the powers-that-be, has utterly failed.
Plan B, promoted in various forms by Antarsya, the Communist Party and Syriza’s own Left Platform advocates a productive reconstruction outside the Eurozone. Although increasingly popular after the inflexibility of the European project has been made evident, it is still a productivist, state-centric, top-down plan that doesn’t put into question the dominant meanings of capitalism: endless capitalist growth, an extractive economy, the expansion of production, credit and consumption. Furthermore, by promoting national entrenchment it entails the danger of authoritarian deviations.
A decisive turning point
As always, the Greek crisis is a turning point regarding the future of the European project. The Eurozone hardliners insist on blaming the people of the European periphery for the structural defects of the single currency and their own insistence on socializing private debt through the euphemistically called ‘bailout packages’. At the same time they have poisoned the minds of the people of the North of Europe with a neocolonial moralistic discourse propagated through the mass media.
The perceived loss of political power over their lives is turning many Europeans towards reactionary xenophobic parties that promise a return to the self-contained authoritarian nation-state. The European left looks on perplexed as its hopes of an EU based on solidarity and social justice vanish along with Syriza’s bid to negotiate a humane way out of the Greek debt crisis.
Now is the moment for a broad alliance of social forces to bring forward a ‘Plan C’, based on social collaboration, decentralized self-government and the stewardship of common goods. Without overlooking its significance, national electoral politics is not the privileged field of action when it comes to social transformation.
The withering away of democracy in Europe should be complemented and challenged by the fortification of self-organized communities at a local level and the forging of strong bonds between them, along with a turn to a solidarity- and needs-based economy, and the collective management and defense of common goods. The social counter-power of the oppressed should confront the social power of capital directly in its privileged space: everyday life.
Within Greece, after a full circle, the debate on our future beyond austerity has only now started. The resounding 61% rejection of austerity serves to remind us that this debate is now urgent, and the reactivation of the social movements that envision new social relationships built from below is imminent, after some years of relative demobilization. We have ahead of us a new cycle of creative resistance, of forging collective subjects and of tireless experimentation for the bottom-up transformation of our reality.