Dispatch from Athens #12: Show some Left initiative

by · January 24, 2015

Athens anti-Golden Dawn protest, June 2012

Athens anti-Golden Dawn protest, June 2012

NOTE: Kevin’s liveblog of the election is already up & running HERE

Let’s show some initiative on the Left

It’s pouring down in Athens. It’s not put a dampener on people’s spirits, however.

A quick visit to the local square for a coffee brought me into an animated discussion with a fluid group of people who were reading the Sunday papers with a running commentary. They were printed a day early.

Pity the subeditor who would have to write a headline now for a paper still current when the results are known in 24 hours time.

Most were planning to vote for the Left. Two, out of about eight or 10, were not planning to vote at all. Voting is compulsory in Greece. But the penalty for not voting is like that paid by the media moguls who have yet to cough up a cent for the broadcasting rights they’ve been licensed to have for the last decade and more: tipota, nothing.

And most of those voting for the Left are choosing Syriza. While opinion polls put Syriza on a third of the popular vote, its support among the working class — this was a working class Galatsi gathering — is much higher.

In workplaces it is running at around double that, according to friends, from Syriza and Antarsya, who have been campaigning in the big concentrations of public and private sector workers. Not only the vote for the Left, but the intensity of the political debate is at its highest there too.

Support for policies which point to an anti-capitalist rupture with fundamentalist austerians of the Troika is much higher than will be expressed in the vote for those forces of the Left which have made them the slogans of their election campaign.

For a start, there is support within Syriza from components of its Left. More importantly, there is popular support. And it is linked most strongly to those who have been part of the widespread worker and social resistance to austerity.

It makes a difference, for example, whether the workers of the defunct state broadcaster ERT — who are mooting reoccupying tomorrow night in celebration of Syriza’s victory — have as part of their collective thinking a cogent and militant answer to the question of where the money would come from to give them their jobs back and reopen the state enterprise, as an alternative to the Murdochesque media.

So too the ministry of finance cleaners — women who have maintained a year-long struggle and who are genuine in their demand to be back in the ministry the moment the Left takes over from the Right.

It’s my t-shirt which provides a ready way in to discussion. I explain how so many of us outside Greece are hopeful too.

Warm smiles. A real understanding that what is offered goes by the name of solidarity not sympathy. Then the hard question. For it is not just “the politicians” who face those questions. The Left does too.

Ioanna, in her mid-20s, unemployed and about to head for London: “But what can you do? I hope I am not rude. But what can you do to help us here?”

It’s not rude at all. It is justified in its directness.

The underground Greek Communist Party was almost on its knees in 1940. A few thousand members, it had been so successfully infiltrated by the secret police of the Metaxas dictatorship that the archives have two series of its paper: the real one and a totally convincing set of fakes produced by spies. There were even two central committees — one of them comprising secret police.

By 1944 it had over 400,000 members. Millions were in the Communist-led national resistance. The Left hegemonised the working masses and the country because it successfully fought foreign occupation and it fed the people during the great starvation brought by the Third Reich.

Today’s generation looking to the Left want the Left to provide too.

In the British socialist tradition this great question, which is about political power hegemony, is often trivialised by the label “bread and butter questions”.

I say trivialised because what is being asked of the international Left and labour movement by this group of (quite fresh) voters of the Left in Greece is not that we turn ourselves to discussing issues of bread and butter.

They are asking what we might provide. Here, I hope I was honest, without being brutally so.

None of the radical Left, not least in Britain, has at our disposal the resources or has in our hands the lever of power which can make the difference that is needed.

We do not control a veto or vote in the European Council of ministers. We do not run the British central bank, which could make bilateral relations with its Greek counterpart. We cannot direct nationalised industries to adjust their procurement to benefit Greece and its Left wing government.

We are not on the brink of an electoral breakthrough, let alone the massive shift in economic and political power those things entail.

Saying all that is not some redundant exercise, I hope. First, because people are very practical. And those are practical things which a Left in solidarity with Greece could do if it were in government. Second, because if Syriza’s advance in Greece is truly to signal a renewed confidence of the Left in Europe then these are considerations to which we should aspire to be in a position to give practical effect.

Third, we do not have the executive power of government to take such initiatives. But it is clear from the experience of Greece in the last six years that if the Left is to grow elsewhere then it too must take what initiatives it can.

As the first stirrings of renewed, combative critique of neoliberal capitalism emerged in Prague and Genoa with the altermondialiste (or anti-globalisation) movement a decade and a half ago a section of the Left in Greece took the initiative to become a part of it.

What became Syriza proved open to that initiative. It brought not only credibility and direct support for the party; it was part of shifting the parameters of public debate. “Another world is possible” became a fairly widely recognised reference point, just at the time Pasok decided to go down the dead end of Blairism.

It also opened the prospect of a new way of doing things, not just doing things habitually to get something new.

The new ways actually had antecedents: Direct democracy. Popular participation. Rejecting the idea that marching was for the minions and politics for the politicians — even honourable ones of the Left.

No one in Syriza would say that that revolution in how politics is done is anything like complete. In fact, the transformation of Syriza from coalition to party was double edged. It raised the self-awareness of activists who had been drawn to it — first from the intellectual layers, then the public employees and finally, electorally at any rate, swathes of the traditional working class — that this was a movement for political power, not spasmodic protest.

But it also solidified some of the tired and conventional modes of what it is to be a party which fights at the ballot box to form a parliamentary majority.

The result is an ongoing dynamic tension. The premium upon initiative remains, however.

Protest outside the ERT occupation, June 2013

Protest outside the ERT occupation, June 2013

That’s important to bear in mind as even before polling day we hear the din of clashes to come, as the forces of the old order seek to strangle hope even before it takes office.

It’s true bordering on a truism that what a government of the Left can do rests upon what the elemental force of the Left, the popular masses in motion, are prepared to fight for and do themselves.

But government ministers can do things. They can take initiatives. The cleaners of the finance ministry have shown tremendous initiative. They are looking for that to be matched by their new boss taking ministerial initiative and reinstating them. That won’t bring the Troika tumbling down. Neither, conversely, does it require an all-out confrontation with global capital to achieve.

But it would be a powerful signal of intent. And it would, in the new circumstances of holding governmental office, renew the mutually-reinforcing relationship between the political Left and mass movements which has been crucial to the advance of Syriza and the growth of the Left as a whole.

One of the many occasions in the last year where I’ve met the women of the finance ministry was on a major anti-racist demonstration last year. They were there with their banner, surrounding a Syriza MP who has studiously supported them, cheering on the Pakistani and other immigrant workers who led us down Stadiou Street.

It was an important moment. And it brings me to just one initiative which is already in place and which the Left in Europe can usefully promote from now. Not to the exclusion of all others.

But because, arising from Athens, it already has traction — especially following the orgy of hypocrisy in Paris which was the “Je suis charlatan” parade of Europe’s elite following the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and the fascist-organised, anti-Muslim Pegida protests in Germany.

A major anti-fascist and anti-racist conference in Athens last autumn issued a prescient appeal for a European-wide day of action against racism and fascism on 21 March this year.

That followed a similar and successful Greek call for coordinated action on 19 January of 2013, on which demonstrations took place in 30 cites internationally declaring them to be “anti-fascist cities”.

Already a major demonstration is planned for London. Events are being planned in France and Germany too. Protests will take place across the Spanish state, which goes to the polls at the end of this year. The anti-establishment Left party Podemos is currently topping the polls.

Syriza has stood out against the racist and authoritarian policies of the outgoing government.

The anti-racist movement in Greece on 21 March is calling for the incoming government to close the concentration camps for immigrants without papers, to grant citizenship to the immigrant children at school (matching at the very least the measures Pasok once pushed, but which were reversed by the Samaras government); and setting a date for the prosecution of the fascists of Golden Dawn as a criminal conspiracy.

The “civilised” austerity-mongers of the EU & co. have managed to pull off a sleight of hand which has fooled so much of liberal opinion.

The institutions of Europe are held up to be bastions of liberal cosmopolitanism under threat from statist protectionists — of the Right, but also, in an egregious final foray today by the bigoted chauvinist Samaras, by their counterparts on the Left who, it is alleged, want national isolation.

In fact, it is the mechanisms of European capitalism which have fostered racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.

It’s not just that their austerity has created fertile ground for scapegoating. It is also that:

1) The very free movement of people they say they champion within Europe is linked to the barbed wire fences erected around the EU’s borders to keep others out. And there is to be no free movement for those without papers.

2) They have more and more turned to ethnicised, racialised explanations for the intractable European crisis. Greeks are held up as lazy and dishonest, not only in trashy papers like Germany’s Bild or Britain’s Sun (expect a torrent on Monday) but in respectable papers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the London Times.

3) In the name of Europe, it has strengthened the antagonisms between nation states. They have increased even as economic policy making has been given over to supra-national bodies.

So 21 March — officially the beginning of spring — is a date to set aside now.

In mobilising that day and building a sustained European-wide movement from it we are not only hitting directly at the fascists of Golden Dawn and the Front National in France, at the xenophobes of UKIP and the chauvinists on the German Right, we are also hitting at the racism and its vicious cycle of reproduction emanating in the name of Europe.

For it is a Europe of the elites against the Europe of its peoples. And it is very much a bread and butter question. For the people who take the food out of our mouths will continue to do so while we blame one another and not them.

“I’ll be in London by March,” said Ionna as I was leaving. “I like the idea of us all being on the streets across Europe on the same day for the same thing and all together regardless of nation.

“I’ll see you there.”

See you there too.

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