Greece: A political crisis with no easy solution
As background to the recent posts on the situation in Greece, we’re reprinting the translation of an article written by PANOS GARGANAS, editor of the Workers Solidarity newspaper, from his organisation SEK’s Socialism From Below magazine, May-June 2012 issue. This piece was written just after the 6 May elections. Translation is by Costas Todoulos. The original can be found here. Thanks to Nikos Loudos for circulating this.
Panos Garganas analyses the new phase of the double — economic and political — crisis and highlights the importance of anti-capitalist answers.
The elections of the 6th of May opened a new phase in the double economic and political crisis, not only for Greece, but internationally. The ‘Euro-rescuers’ of Greece suffered a shock while the workers and the students who have been resisting austerity across Europe gained new momentum for their struggles. Now, eventually, the question is not whether there is an alternative to the endless austerity of the successive memoranda but in what ways the workers’ movement will develop and enforce this alternative.
The certainties and the ‘no alternatives’ of the Euro-memoranda have suffered an overwhelming blow. PASOK and New Democracy entered the election period claiming that the second memorandum was an improvement on the first, and that there is no other alternative than to support those parties that guarantee Greece’s continuous participation in the euro and the “European perspective of the country.” On this basis, Samaras, the leader of New Democracy, has been saying that the “amelioration” of the memorandum is due to the participation of New Democracy in the government led by Papadimos; thus, the country’s best prospect is through a single-party government led by New Democracy. Meanwhile, Venizelos, the leader of PASOK, praised his own negotiating skills in an attempt for PASOK to win the elections.
The disapproval that both PASOK and New Democracy (ND) received was overwhelming. Never before had ND found itself so far from forming a government on its own and so close to being demoted to a ‘second class’ party. PASOK has not been in the third place since it was founded in the 1974 elections. The difference is that back then it was a rising power in the political scene whereas now it is in decline.
In reality, the aim of both parties was to gain together the majority in the parliament, but they failed even in this. They were forced to admit a day after the elections that a new coalition government by PASOK-ND is neither politically nor practically possible. The political pillars of the euro in Greece, ‘the party that put Greece into Europe’ on the one hand and ‘the modernisers of the strong Greece of the euro’ cannot govern and seek support from a “responsible European left.”
But they failed even in that. They had so unashamedly rushed to declare Kouvelis, leader of the Democratic Left, as the representative of this ‘responsible’ left, that he was burnt as a card. Within the short period of time between February and May, opinion polls for the ‘Democratic Left’ showed a dramatic plunge in its vote, but this was not translated into voters turning back to PASOK. As a result, ND and PASOK had the uncomfortable task of trying to put in the position of the “responsible ally” the party that they had been condemning until recently as the “protector of the masked rioters”, i.e. SYRIZA. The strongest indicator of the political turmoil within the two former government parties is perhaps the sight of Samaras and Venizelos criticising Tsipras, the leader of SYRIZA, for “being unwilling to assume governmental responsibilities”!
But neither is trapping SYRIZA in a new coalition government an easy task. Because the millions of voters who skyrocketed the overall results of the Left to unprecedented levels on May 6th, remain on a leftwards course, making any such manoeuvre difficult even for leaders who would otherwise be open to such a possibility. It is indicative that even Kouvelis, the most determined resident of the European ‘camp’, is under pressure from the massive shift to the left to say no to participation in a coalition government with New Democracy and PASOK. The “exploratory mandates” have been fruitless and the only alternative for President Papoulias was to call for new elections which all agree will bring an even more resounding defeat for New Democracy and PASOK.
The ruling class has no easy solution for the political crisis it is facing. This has to do with three factors that exacerbate the situation: the worsening economic crisis, the political instability that spreads across Europe and the dynamics towards radicalization that characterises the tendencies of workers and youth not only in Greece but throughout Europe.
The Financial Times’ headline ‘Seven days that shook Europe’ on May 12 is indicative. The columnist refers to the secret meetings between the Spanish finance minister and Olli Rehn and Mario Dragi a few days after Sarkozy’s defeat in the French presidential elections, and in the shadow of the Greek election results. It ends with scenes of panic in the German government, with its officials scaremongering that the abandonment of the Memorandum equals “a Hiroshima in Athens.” Let’s look at these issues one by one.
Economic developments show that the prospects of exiting the crisis through the implementation of the Memoranda are decreasing, no matter how brutal the austerity measures they may implement. It’s not only the economies of the countries in anguish under the ‘Troika’, that is, the economies of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, which are in recession. Britain entered a period of recession in the first quarter of 2012. The 20 largest economies of the world are in distress and depend on ‘injections’ by the Central Banks. All talk about ‘growth’ remains just talk. The largest multinational companies are holding on to huge amounts of liquidity reserves and refuse to invest because they don’t expect their markets to grow. The idea that they will be ‘attracted’ by a reduction in labour costs is internationally unrealistic.
Against this backdrop, the banking sector crisis is worsening further. Despite the fact that the European Central Bank made available to the banks one trillion euros in cheap loans, and that the Spanish banks were some of the largest beneficiaries, the Spanish government was forced to rescue its third largest bank, Bankia. Spain is a step closer to being forced to ask help form the Troika and bring the crisis in the very heart of the euro.
The louder Samaras and Venizelos shout in favour of remaining in the euro as the utmost criterion for an agreement to form a government, the tighter the stone is tied around their necks, pulling them to the bottom. And this is something that all forces within the Left should be able to see.
The overall worsening of the economic conditions, which confirms the ineffectiveness of the austerity policies, spreads the political instability even in countries like the Netherlands, which have the required AAA economic ratings. In the Netherlands, the government collapsed and opinion polls show a prospect of polarisation in the forthcoming elections. It’s not difficult to imagine the effect of a NO vote by the Irish in the referendum on the EU Stability Pact. But in the meantime, Sarkozy’s defeat has shaken the ‘Merkozy’ alliance. Sarkozy is the first French President in decades to be electorally defeated after his first term in office. And uneasiness over the effectiveness of his successor François Hollande is most prominent.
Hollande’s dead ends
On Tuesday 18th March the Financial Times featured an article, which concluded as follows: “The combination of political chaos in Greece and an inflexible IMF suggests that Greece will hit a new crisis this summer. At this point, the EU will face a momentous choice. Does it step in with yet more aid for Greece, even as the IMF backs off? Or does it refuse to help Greece — accepting all the political and economic risks that come with such a choice? Faced with such a crisis, Mr Hollande’s vague and uplifting rhetoric about saving Europe from austerity is irrelevant.”
Even if we take into account the political motives of a British conservative columnist writing about a ‘socialist’ French president, the fact remains that uneasiness is ‘eating away’ even at the strongest centres of capitalism.
Alex Callinicos in his weekly column in Socialist Worker in London stated this even more boldly:
Europe’s political leadership is bankrupt. This is true literally, as we can see with the latest stage of the banking crisis unfolding in Spain. If the eurozone continues to unravel, there simply won’t be enough money to save it.
It is also true morally and intellectually. And everyone knows it. This is the main lesson of the recent elections.[…]
The policies that Angela Merkel is determined to hardwire into the institutional structure of the European Union are being squeezed. And there is polarisation further to the right and to the left.[…]
Figures such as Mélenchon, the Syriza leader Alex Tsipras, and, George Galloway in the UK, are able to reach out to traditional social-democratic voters by articulating their anger in a familiar reformist language. Ed Miliband and François Hollande are trying to recalibrate their parties’ messages to relate to this anger, but their unwillingness to break with social liberalism leaves a big space to their left.
The left and the movement in Greece have nothing positive to expect from the likes of Papandreou and Venizelos in Europe who promise to reform the austerity of the EU. The only positive development in this picture of political instability at the heart of Europe is the increased potential for workers’ resistance within these countries. This is also something that all forces within the left should be able to see.
However, the inadequacies of the reformist leaderships appear between this ‘should be’ and reality. The leadership of the Communist Party of Greece made the tragic mistake of erecting a wall against everyone on the left with its infamous statement “we are not left wing, we are communists”, at the time when hundreds of thousands of people were moving to the left. The only thing that this sectarian stance achieved was to allow the leadership of SYRIZA to slip away easily, branding every criticism from the left as ‘sectarian’.
But is it really ‘sectarian’ to highlight the contradictions of a leadership that promises to release Greece from the shackles of the memoranda, without breaking away from the straightjacket of the euro-zone and while being fully committed to the parliamentary procedures? Obviously not. Thousands of activists who have been involved in struggles in the last two years, who organised the strikes, occupations and demonstrations that brought Papandreou and Papadimos to their knees have every right to pose these crucial questions: Can we get rid of the Troika without breaking away from two of the three watchdogs that make it up, i.e. the European central Bank and the European Commission? What does it mean to publicly control the banking system without nationalising the banks and without imposing workers’ control? Is it possible to cancel the debt if we pre-emptively restrain of ‘unilateral actions’ or will this logic lead to negotiation like the PSI (Private Sector Involvement)? No honest trade unionists would seat in the negotiating table with the bosses, denouncing in advance the strongest weapons of their union — why should the left then enter into the ‘renegotiation’ of the memorandum having eliminated in advance a break away from the euro and the unilateral cancellation of the debt?
The presence of the anticapitalist left in the structured form of ANTARSYA means that all these questions, and many more, that the people who voted left, both SYRIZA and KKE, are concerned with, can really be on the agenda of the movement, both as a dialogue and as initiatives, and are not swept under the carpet. ANTARSYA aims at helping the left-leaning potential which erupted on the 6th of May, to take advantage of this success and putting a final end to the looting by the bosses against the working class.
What should the anticapitalists do?
What such an initiative means? Firstly that the anticapitalist left takes centre stage in fighting back against the scaremongering and the blackmailing initiated by ND and PASOK with Merkel’s support. The vulgarities like that the overthrowing of the memorandum will bring ‘Hiroshima in Athens’ have to be countered decisively and not by exchanging correspondence with Baroso. In a jubilant environment, because for the first time after decades a leader of the left got the mandate to form a government, the news that Alexis Tsipras sent a letter to the president of the Commission, saying he is committed to the stability of the European Union and choosing to counter the scaremongering with arguments like “we are interested in our common good” was overshadowed.
When the enemy strikes with a tactic like the transformation of the statement by Stratoulis (a SYRIZA leading figure) about the ‘guarantee of the savings’ to scaremongering about ‘grabbing the savings’ the answer should not be stepping back. The answer is that the workers in Greece have the strength to demolish any speculative game run by the capitalists, both local and international, through establishing workers’ control in the banking sector and big business. The anticapitalist program that ANTARSYA proposes is not a ‘visionary plan’ for the distant future but the strongest tool of the workers against the economic catastrophe that the capitalists are trying to impose on us if we do not behave ourselves.
A second thing is the rejuvenation of the movement for the projection and implementation of these solutions. The left cannot and should not limit itself in the popularisation of its proposals with pre-electoral declarations. If the force that brought us to the success of the 6th of May, which is the movement and the powerful struggles of the workers and the youth during the last years, limits itself to passively wait for a bigger electoral victory, then the possibilities of achieving even of the best promises become more unrealistic.
One way we can see this is to ponder how we can stop the threatening rise of the neo-nazis of Golden Dawn. Does anyone believe that we can leave this to be resolved by some minister of a future left government who will send police to kick them out of Aghios Panteleimonas? Isn’t it obvious that that we must move to antifascist action here and now and that any similar action will be a double success, isolating neo-nazis and strengthening the current to the left as well?
On the same train of thought, the left must be in the gates of every potential ‘Chalivourgia’ (Steel Industry), to organise strikes and occupations against the destruction of the collective workers agreements and the cuts in pensions, against the new memorandum dictated ‘package’ of 11 billion Euros that they prepare for us in June and not to freeze the mobilizations waiting for the barbaric measure to be cancelled by an electoral victory. ANTARSYA is the section of the left that puts itself at the forefront to continue and escalate the movement’s action without pre-election inhibition and waiting.
All these do not mean that ANTARSYA will not fight in the new elections. The sections of the left that are fantasizing a ‘division of labour’ where SYRIZA is the useful force for the vote and all the other sections of the left are useful for the struggles are terribly wrong. These ‘divisions’ weaken on the whole the movement and the left.
The dynamic of the people turning to the left is not monopolised by the force that came first in electoral results, nor is a ‘zero-sum game’ where the increase of one force means the weakening of another. The current that shot SYRIZA up from 5 percent to 17 percent was not created by a ‘charismatic’ leadership, as some bourgeois commentators argue. It was born from common struggles of thousands of workers and youth who fought, struck, and literally bled to achieve the downfall of Karamanlis, Papandreou and Papadimos successively, first in the streets and then on the ballot boxes. Continuing this dynamic demands a strong ANTARSYA and not its abolition in order to ‘stop taking away votes from SYRIZA coming first’.
If the leadership of SYRIZA makes the mistake of transforming the new pre-election period in ‘civil war’ within the left with attacks on the KKE because it does not ‘desire unity’ and ANTARSYA because ‘it is very small in elections’, it will undermine this dynamic to the left. The only ones who are going to gain something from such a development will be people like Kouvelis waiting to argue that the only way is compliance.
The strengthening of ANTARSYA is the guarantee that we will utilise the success of the 6th of May in the best way and build on it a stronger workers’ movement.
Where can revolutionary socialists find the most interesting people to fight alongside and argue with, in a rapidly changing situation? I find it very difficult to believe that it is in a Maoist-Trotskyist bloc rather than in a bloc with lots of left reformist activists whose ideas are likely to be very unstable in the present period.
John, I don’t think the SEK see Antarsya as where they can “find the most interesting people to fight alongside and argue with, in a rapidly changing situation”. It seems to me that the mass struggles in Greece are where such people are not only being found, but where Antarsya already influences and leads people. Antarsya is not a pond to fish from; it’s an electoral front designed to put a program capable of resolving the crisis of Greek society (including the need to directly challenge capitalism and the centrality of mass action from below; workers’ control, etc.). Similarly, SYRIZA is not a bigger pond to fish from but an organisation that stands in opposition to the kind of program that Antarsya wants to articulate.
I do appreciate that (and I especially appreciate the fraternal tone of your comments, a tone which has been sorely lacking in some debating on the web of late). Of course I was suggesting that the most important question was the one I was putting :=) I would take issue though with that opposition “put a programme” or “have a pond to fish in”. The 64 000 dollar question is of course how to make revolutionary ideas into a concrete mass force because enough people believe them and act on them. Joining an electoral front to fight alongside the left reformists for more limited aims while not hiding one’s revolutionary ideas is *not* in my view fishing in a pond (an image which suggests little respect for the trout recruits one presumably is after). It is simply a recognition that it is the people who you fight alongside that you are likely to influence (because that’s how people work).
“Joining an electoral front to fight alongside the left reformists for more limited aims while not hiding one’s revolutionary ideas is *not* in my view fishing in a pond”. I can accept that, but you now raise this issue of “limited aims”. The problem I see with SYRIZA is more related to its strategy, of hoping to achieve those limited aims through parliament (and, therefore, the Greek capitalist state).
Now that it has a real chance of forming some kind of government, what will “fighting alongside” from within mean in practice? Will the focus be on governmental manoeuvres or workers’ self-activity or some confused, messy hybrid? The DEA’s position certainly seems to be the latter. By remaining outside SYRIZA, while also working alongside its activists, Antarsya are not as likely to be pulled into the logic of the governmental path. It actually means they can provide clearer leadership to activists and supporters of SYRIZA in response to what actually happens, by providing an alternative programmatic and strategic pole.
I’ll also say this again, just to clarify: There is a much higher level of struggle in Greece than in any other advanced capitalist country. Most of that struggle has not been led by SYRIZA, nor (importantly) has it occurred within SYRIZA’s structures. Last week’s anti-fascist rallies of course were not supported by SYRIZA (even if some of its constituent groups, like DEA, attended).
I’m still quite puzzled about why so many Marxists have been arguing that entry into SYRIZA (or some “electoral united front”) is key to relating to workers and others radicalised in these struggles (almost as if it’s axiomatic or something).
John, I think Tad is (understandably) touchy about the concept of “fishing expeditions” given the history in Australia of one organisation which makes that sort of approach its focus.
That said, his corrective about the nature of Syriza being an electoral front as opposed to an activist one seems to be mainly true, despite (or perhaps partly because of) the presence in it of DEA.
However I remain to be convinced that there is much to be gained by Antarsya contesting the election independently, and possibly quite a bit to be lost
Presumably the masses of people who voted for Syriza are already in the struggles being led by Antarsya – there is one active movement among which all parties are arguing strategies. It would be suicidal for Antarsya to change tack to join forces with Syriza which has a totally different dynamic and political strategy to use the state (capitalist state) to change the economic and political situation. That situation is stuffed and needs overthrowing. The question is how to build the forces for the overthrow, not how to shore up the reforming state. I know little about the concrete situation, but would be disappointed if we have a re-run of 1919-20 in Italy, where the only parties were abstract sectarian communists or left reformists, both looking for passive directions only for the workers movement. We need a combination of political party and movement which actively seek solutions for the power in workers action. I am connecting with Panos on this.
Just re-reading my comment it seems I am expressing a sense that because we need to overthrow the existing situation, that we can do it now; no, I am not saying that. In all the other European countries, it seems likely I would support a different scenario. In Greece we have a highly developed working class movement and a serious, albeit smallish marxist current with strong roots there, alongside the KKE leaders. I think this is the difference with other situations. The question is leading and encouraging steps that educate and organise the leading working class militants and their supporters. From what I understand, a lot of the political capital (bad metaphor, but) among the workers movement would be lost if they change their direction now, when they have the possibility of going forward along a class orientation in what seems to be a pre-revolutionary situation. Given my lack of knowledge, I cannot say that I am right of course, it just seems the best way, rather than to retreat unnecessarily (sometimes we must). This is quite difficult . However, the difference here is we are talking about elections in the midst of the growing working class movement – a movement whose power and confidence lies in self-activity, not to deny the importance of elections, but activists need to understand the difference in building among workers compared to social movements.
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