Dispatch from Athens #7: The strategic question is posed

by · January 17, 2015

Nearly 600 Finance Ministry cleaners who lost their jobs when made redundant, have led a sustained protest for reinstatement. The almost 16 month campaign has included a tent city directly outside the ministry office in central Athens, and has been maintained 24 hours a day since last May.

Nearly 600 Finance Ministry cleaners who lost their jobs when made redundant, have led a sustained protest for reinstatement. The almost 16 month campaign has included a tent city outside the ministry in Athens, which has been maintained 24 hours a day since last May.

The strategic question is posed, whether the Left asks it or not

On the eve of the last campaigning weekend before the historic Greek general election you would be forgiven for thinking that the public mood must be febrile to the point of convulsion.

A friend from Beirut PMed me to ask, “It must be like when it gets a bit tense here — you remember, a car backfires downtown and suddenly everyone draws a piece. The militias are out. The city shatters into a dozen neighbourhoods based on sect. And people just pull it back together by uniting — Christian, Sunni and Shia — against some moronic outfit with no base to lose which has only gone and blockaded the airport?”

As accurate a description that might be of another jewel on the Mediterranean on a bad day, it is mercifully a far cry from Athens at the start of this weekend.

Not that Greeks can’t run Lebanese close when it comes to unloading a clip or two. It’s usually in joyous exuberance, as is attested to by the annual, tragedy-squared deaths each Easter from the gunfire let rip or from the anti-personnel mortars (unfeasibly passed off as “fireworks”) tossed into crowds to celebrate a resurrection.

Someone really should produce a Grand Unified Theory of the uncanny coincidence of national characteristics between these two peoples.

There is, for example, that shared propensity to have a cousin in exactly that Basque backwater you find yourself broken down in. He does turn out to be a mechanic, or at least looks the part. And indeed he can, despite your snorting scepticism, fix a Mercedes-ML head gasket with nothing more than a Cornflakes packet and some expertly chewed mastic gum.

Then there’s the time-(ahem)-keeping… and that popular, national culture and sentiment which unites football terrace and wedding reception alike in melodic invocation of death to American imperialism.

Light-heartedness in defiance of the grim social reality aside, Greeks at this moment are upending the stereotype of volatile panic-mongers — a nasty national caricature; regional also, directed against Southern Europeans as a whole; and in a sense even Orientalist, as the soi-disant Europeans of the French state and the German central bank detach Athens culturally from the continent and plonk it a pistol shot away from Damascus.

Why is there calm of a kind which could be seriously perturbed now only by some sort of violent explosion — a literal one, of a piece with the mayhem that characterised Italy during the “the strategy of tension” inflicted by the state and para-state in the 1970s?

First — an overwhelming material reality: it is January. It’s al fresco weather by London standards, but there are obvious reasons why fewer people are thronging squares and outdoor venues in impromptu debate than in the two general elections in early summer 2012.

Indeed, to my eye there appears no more public activity than there was in the 2009 election, which also saw a change of government.

There’s no reason to suppose that that is because the change which Syriza’s victory would signify now will be of the same marginal significance as Pasok’s victory against New Democracy was then.

Seemingly paradoxically, Athens does not feel like a tinderbox precisely because so much is at stake and it now feels certain that Syriza will win the election and is even contesting for a wafer thin but overall majority.

One counterintuitive consequence becomes clear when you look at that from the point of view of the mass of the electorate, rather than that of the (not inconsiderable) ranks of Syriza and the organised Left.

People have gone through five years of personal and family hardship. There have been many tragedies. All this against the scenery of unrelenting political drama (and farce) which has left the political class held down in popular contempt not up in esteem as tragic heroes, flawed but with an appeal to Everyman.

Above all, there has been an extraordinary level of sustained social resistance: in workplaces, public squares, street confrontations, high schools, universities and by migrant workers fighting internment in Boer War style concentration camps or murder at the hands of the fascist Golden Dawn or a police force which votes heavily for it.

There have been 32 general strikes by the public and private sector trade union confederations. The tide of set-piece national confrontations or eruptions — such as the militant work-in by staff at the now defunct state broadcaster ERT when it was initially closed — has ebbed.

I’ll return in the coming week, in more detail and through the experiences of participants to the multifaceted story of the continuing worker, union, youth and social movements.

But for now it is important to register that while the movements have ebbed and flowed and great misery has been borne by the labouring masses, the movements have not ended and the masses have not suffered strategic defeat.

For the defeat which the forces of austerity would have to impose to remove the impact of working people and their organisations on workplaces, the administration of neighbourhoods, the shape of politics and the overall direction of society is not of the order of a privatisation program or even raising unemployment to the level where less than half the working age population has a job.

What that actually requires would be the evisceration of working class and popular organisation to the point where it ceases to be a reference point — either in bosses judging how far to squeeze the people further or, more importantly, in people’s horizons when considering whether they can resist.

The movements have not defeated the austerity. But they have maintained a level of popular organisation which has not suffered a serious break in its traditions going right back to the fall of the last attempt to remove it from social and political reality  — the Junta of 1967 to 1974.

And they have been the elemental force which has powered the turbine of the Left. This account — in the first instance very general — of the symbiosis between the social resistance to austerity and the fortunes of the Left, and its main party/electoral expression, Syriza, helps explain the public mood.

Hope is coming, say the Syriza posters. People want to be hopeful. And they are not jaundiced about the imminent change of government.

But they know (with a popular level of familiarity with national accounting and budget figures which would embarrass most London newsrooms) that confrontations of many kinds — advances and retreats and all in between — are still ahead.

So for the vast majority of working class people, who will vote for Syriza and the Left, there is measured hope and a great deal of thought and reflection on what lies ahead. And everyone believes — knows in a very real sense — that Syriza will win.

If any readers of the Financial Times or other business papers today for one minute put any credence in the claim by Goldman Sachs that its bespoke, mathematical model reveals a dynamic whereby Samaras could well win on Sunday week then they deserve expropriation by more level headed capitalists, before a more popular redistribution of wealth away from that class as a whole.

Goldman Sachs is the house financial analyst of New Democracy. It has an interest in boostering Samaras’s chances. He has an electoral obligation to do the same. No one else does. Not even the oligarchs.

For the mass base of the Right there is already a sense of defeat. Samaras did his best to turn that into fear and resentment at “usurpation” by the national heretics of the Left, who were dealt with once and firmly through a dose of civil war and exile.

It’s not only that that has failed in invigorating the bases of the Right to fight down to the wire. It’s also that his has ceased to be the monotonous tone from the European Union and from Berlin especially.

Of course they have not gone over to welcoming a Syriza victory and trying to find nice things to say about its programme.

What they are grasping towards is some concrete combination of threat and cajoling.

They are looking to concert immediate pressure and drawn out — and therefore wearying for the new government — diplomatic machinations whereby they hope to defang a Left government. Crucially, they hope to contain the political contagion which threatens later this year to see the Podemos party rip apart the 40-year political settlement in the Spanish state in much the same way as it has fallen in Greece.

The serious papers are beginning to hone in on how this might all work out in concrete policy, nickel and dime, terms.

In a major interview in the Financial Times this week the outgoing finance minister Gikas Hardouvelis declared that on the one hand there would be no money under a Syriza government for it to pay the cash to service the debt required in March. It was outlandish. He did not say why the money would be there in the alternate universe of Samaras being returned as prime minster.

It was homage to the fear-mongering line, which is not being abandoned; rather, refettled. He went on to propose a six month extension of the credit agreement embodied in the hated austerity memorandums on the ostensible grounds that six months would allow the new government to “cleanly” exit the onerous conditions.

Transparently, the six months is a trap to tie the government into the Troika process and, crucially, to force it humiliatingly to move a motion in parliament which would contain words endorsing the very memorandum Syriza opposes.

A kind of right of passage or blooding of the new party of government.

Hardouvelis is only one, relatively minor, politician. But he is more connected to the bureaucrats of Europe and the Greek Central Bank than the thuggish chauvinist Samaras.

He is a technocrat. A journalist colleague points out that he is the kind of man who both has a laundry list and has it drawn up on an Excel spreadsheet.

The overall movement of the money markets and likely decisions by the European Central Bank three days before the Greek election point in the same direction as his broad twin-track approach.

So the German magazine of record Der Spiegel began a financial run against Greece at the New Year with an authoritative article claiming Angela Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble could live with Syriza leading Greece out of the euro.

Merkel and Schäuble swiftly refuted the article. This week Der Spiegel has Schäuble saying that Greece will not leave the euro and at the same time the devastating conditions imposed on Greece will not be varied by as much as an umlaut.

Not a run, but a shun of the Greek banking system took place this last week. It has left two private banks having to ask the European authorities for prophylactic funds to avoid potential difficulties in the next two weeks.

There is a lot of smoke and mirrors. That is unsurprising. Because in essence even Schäuble is in practice moving towards recognition of Syriza’s stated central policy: renegotiation with the lenders of Europe and the IMF to lift the unpayable debt burden from Greece.

The Troika has no intention of doing that — even though the IMF’s own economists say some write-down of debt has to take place. But Merkel may manoeuvre to say, “You want to renegotiate? Well, we are always happy to talk — but our position is no change”.

This is the actual arena in which the contradictions and tensions facing Syriza’s policy on the central issue of the debt will be played out — in the first instance, at any rate.

It will not only be there, for sure. But neither the EU bureaucracy nor the leadership of Syriza are suggesting that they will foreclose on summitry, interminable discussion in Brussels and all the rest of the euro-circus which has constantly been two steps behind the crisis. Neither side is in favour of making some pre-emptory move in the finance boardrooms or on the streets of Athens. It’s just that Syriza has promised not to and the other side’s negotiators are already playing hardball.

This brings us to not only the strategic approach Syriza is taking over the issue, but to the general strategic question facing the Left and the future of Greece as a whole.

Doing justice to that — in the run-up to the national party rally of Syriza on Thursday and an intense week — means in the coming days analysing not only the programme Syriza is putting forward, outlined in the city of Thessaloniki last September.

We’ll also have to cast an eye over the history of the Left in Greece as it has grappled with major turning points previously and critically examine the current forces on the Left and their arguments.

For now I think it’s important for all on the Left to recognise that the strategic questions posed — in or out of the euro/returning the banks to profit or taking them under popular control/and so on — not on account of trivial organisational or ideological differences on the Left, but that they arise from the perilous state Greece (and therefore Europe) is in.

Two big figures in Syriza were interviewed in the Anglophone media in the last week. There will be more such interviews with more figures in the coming period as the smarter journalists seek to hone down the scope for ambiguity and force the Left to reveal prematurely its bottom line.

Rena Dourou — Syriza’s elected prefect of Athens and an MP who was infamously assaulted by the fascist Ilias Kasidiaris on television — spoke to the British Guardian.

Rena Dourou

Rena Dourou

Costas Lapavitsas — an economics professor in London, who is standing as an MP for Syriza and who is heard respectfully in the party on economic issues — was interviewed on the BBC’s Hardtalk.

Costas Lapavitsas

Costas Lapavitsas

I’ll say more about both over the weekend. But whatever your view on the substance of what they said, four things are common ground on taking both interviews together:

1) Costas and Rena come from quite different political frameworks and are on different wings of the party. Saying that is not hostile to Syriza. They both say it and they are significant figures of it.

2) Both say that the incoming government will face major problems, though both express optimism regarding the outcome.

3) For Costas, and his co-thinkers on the Left, however the “big problem” is that Syriza has not adopted a robust position prepared to leave the euro. That is required even in order to leverage the most out of any negotiation which ends up with staying in. Costas says Syriza must be more prepared to threaten confrontation with the EU.

4) Rena also says that confrontation is coming and that Syriza (and the Left) need to be more prepared for it. But for her the strategic confrontation that must not be shirked is between the Left’s oppositional past (she is particularly critical of the Communist Party) and the necessity now of it making the “compromises that come with power”.

In words which could come from any politician she says, “We will implement our policies and the people will judge us from the results.”

The debate is already underway. It cannot be evaded. Rather, the poles of the argument about how the Left should go forward — when to confront and what, and when to compromise and with whom — should be examined as we look concretely at how this moment of electoral defeat for the parties of austerity might become a chance to end austerity itself and break the power centres that implemented this disaster.

That won’t settle these questions in advance. As the mood in working class areas intuits, we’ll see the whole picture only at the end.

But we can start to get an idea of what recourses from the Left’s rich but contested past, and from its varied forces today, offer the most plausible way forward.

When you start to think in those terms, you can really see why an awful lot of working class people and supporters of the Left are spending so much time listening and thinking very seriously about what they may be called upon to do in the coming year.

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