Tsipras in London: “SYRIZA has a responsibility to put an end to this social disaster”

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This is the first of a two-part on the SYRIZA London event with Alexis Tsipras on March 15th. The second will cover the more discursive question and answer session which followed his speech as well as my own reflections on the ideas and proposals he put forward. Rónán Burtenshaw

Alexis Tsipras arrived in Friend’s Meeting House in Euston on Friday evening for the final leg of a three-day London tour. He used the trip to make connections with the British centre-left establishment – meeting with members of the Labour shadow government, speaking at the London School of Economics (LSE) and doing interviews with Channel Four and the Guardian. Friday was more informal – a public address organised by his SYRIZA party’s London branch in front of a mixed audience, largely made up of British leftists and Greeks, that numbered about a thousand. Tony Benn, the democratic socialist former Labour MP, had been scheduled to introduce Tsipras but was unable to attend for medical reasons. He sent a statement instead, read out by members of the Greek Solidarity Campaign in Britain, which called SYRIZA “the party of hope for Greece and democracy in Europe.”

Tsipras began his speech by framing the European conflict as a battle between neoliberalism and democracy. “Europe is on edge, with two forces colliding. On one side stands the productive forces of democracy, the people fighting to create a society of justice, equality and freedom. And on the other side a neoliberal political project unfolds. Its aim is to control bodies and minds through the politics of fear, to discipline human life in its entirety, to intensify the exploitation of labour and to increase the profits of capital.” SYRIZA, he said, “declare that we are part of the experiment of democracy.”

The struggle for democracy was the central pillar of the speech – its references far outnumbering those of socialism or equality. It was raised as a popular and radical demand, one that would undermine the legitimacy of the established order and halt the advance of neoliberal capitalism. “Syriza believes that radical democratic changes are the only way out of the crisis for the people of Europe. This is not an optimistic illusion. It is the compelling conclusion of rational argument and detailed analysis.”

Against a backdrop of flyers handed around the hall calling for medical aid for Greece the leader of its anti-austerity movement listed some of the “catastrophic” effects it has had on society. A sixth consecutive year of economic recession, with Morgan Stanley predicting a seventh. A twenty percent contraction in the economy since 2008. Workers and pensioners’ incomes down more than thirty percent since 2009. Unemployment approaching “scary” thirty percent mark, while youth unemployment was nearly double that. Hundreds of thousands of graduates and skilled workers emigrating “undermining a future recovery”. “Austerity policies have led to cuts to benefits, deregulation of the labour market, and a further deterioration of the limited welfare state. Collective bargaining has been abolished and every aspect of life has been subject to the demands of capitalist profit and fiscal discipline.”

He then cut through some of the false mutuality put forward about the crisis, of sharen burdens and common solutions. “European elites and the Greek government,” he said, “have sufficient evidence that these policies cannot generate any positive results… Everybody now knows that austerity policies create a vicious spiral of austerity, recession, increasing debt.”

But, as we enter a sixth year of one of capitalism’s deepest and most global crises, austerity remains the dominant policy platform of governments across the world. “Why do European and Greek rulers continue with this self-defeating strategy? I think the answer is obvious: their true goals are different to those officially and publicly pronounced. They actually aim at a total transformation of the social framework. They seek the creation of an economic environment based on cheap labour, special economic zones, deregulation of the labour market, tax exemptions for capital and extensive privatisations of public goods and services.”

Debt, so often the centrepiece of discussions about contemporary Greek politics, played a more minor role in this speech. Its role in this crisis was, Tsipras said, as a weapon of “blackmail” in a “transformative tragedy”. “Their scheme is a subtle technology of power aiming to exclude alternative political programmes. So, I think that if the debt did not exist the elites would have to invent it.”

He also challenged another dominant narrative of the European crisis – that of austerity agendas being imposed on the periphery by the core states, ECB elites and financial interests. “The austerity policies associated with the debt crisis are not imposed on Greece by the Troika. Samaras and his political allies, Pasok and the democratic left, play a crucial role in instigating, planning and implementing the austerity programmes. This became more than obvious when the internal Troika refused our demands to renegotiate the loan agreement even after the IMF admitted their repeated multiplier error in the recession.

“The Greek government is prepared to go to the bitter end in order to please its social allies: big capital and the corrupt elites. Its willingness to implement fully this catastrophic programme has dramatically transformed the state and carries unprecedented perils for democracy. The Samaras coalition has intensified the trends started by the Papademos government. They circumvent the separation of powers in the constitution by passing legislation through ministerial decrees and without parliamentary approval.”

He then segwayed into a discussion the the rise of the far-right in Greece and the current government’s complicity in it via an expression of solidarity with “popular resistance” which had been victims of “unprecedented police repression”. “A near state-of-exception has been imposed in Greece. Unlimited state violence and oppression has been unleashed against anyone who dares to resist. Basic civil liberties and constitutional rights are constantly violated. The torture of detainees by the Greek police, revealed by the Guardian, is just one of many examples.”

The lurch to the right by the Greek government had, he said, “endangered the European liberal and humanist tradition”. It came against a backdrop of “continuous attacks on immigrants by fascist thugs under police protection or tolerance” that created “a sense of an undeclared war on the streets of Athens and throughout Greece.”

“Samaras’ plan is very clear. Based on the pretext of law and order he’s trying to create a political pole that will halt the advance of the Left. He exploits the conservative reflexes and the justified fear of the victims of the economic crisis.” He pointed to the recent appointment of historian Yiannis Kotoulas, who has written favourably of Nazi Germany and is a Holocaust revisionist, to a position in the Ministry of the Interior as evidence of the deepening connection between the far-right and the government. “SYRIZA has a political and moral responsibility to put an end to this social disaster. We are responsible not only to ourselves and future generations, but also to the European tradition and vision, to our own past and future.”

When he came to describe how SYRIZA would live up to these responsibilities he began by outlining their approach – a blend of steadfast opposition to the objectives of neoliberalism and a commitment to act pragmatically to avoid further hardships for those living in Greece. He said that political rivals disparaged those who resisted or opposed the establishment’s “one way solutions” as “populists or demagogues”, “utopians or frauds”. But the commitment of SYRIZA was to “affirmative politics” – “every single one of our nos is followed by a decisive yes.” According to Tsipras the party aimed to provide a plan for “human emancipation” but were not utopians. “In order to change the situation we need to be both idealists and visionaries, but at the same time also brutal pragmatists. Our pragmatism is subject to our vision for radical change. It is not a step back but a necessary precaution.”

Tsipras’ proposals began with the centrepiece of SYRIZA’s campaign – the controversial pledge to end austerity measures in Greece while renegotiating the state’s loan agreements with its creditors. However, recently the party has added a proposal to revisit the economic policies of the 1940s and ‘50s, which saw first the Marshall Plan investment programme and then the 1953 London Debt Agreement write-down of West German debt, which saw its burden reduced by around 50%. “Without the London Agreement there would have been no German economic miracle. The central planks of that deal were debt reduction, a huge investment drive through the Marshall Plan and financing terms linked to export and growth performance. We see no reason why in 2013 such a settlement is not also the appropriate way forward for the whole of the south [of Europe] and especially for Greece. Why can’t we have a new conference on the debts in the south of the Eurozone? Why have we accepted such conservative approach, a state-by-state, country-by-country approach that has so evidently failed?”

He followed this with commitments about the domestic economy. SYRIZA would freeze all cuts to wages and pensions. It would restore the minimum wage to pre-memorandum levels, “a crucial step in our efforts to stop the downward spiral of economic recession and to restore the dignity and prospects of the Greek working-class. It would be a victory for the social classes and forces the Left represents.” He also proposed “radical tax reform”, promising to redistribute tax burdens and “restore justice”. “It is time for the rich to contribute their share in our attempt to exit the crisis and we commit ourselves to that task. We will confront the long-standing problem of tax evasion and tax avoidance.” His promise “to pursue and tax the capital removed from Greece to buy luxury flats in Mayfair or in Chelsea” received one of the few spontaneous applauses of the night for a speech delivered in measured tones.

Tsipras then progressed to one of the few radical proposals of the night – transfering banks to “social and public control”. In addition to restoring the “viability” of the system he said that this would “support environmentally-sustainable public investment and co-operative initiatives; promote quality regional products, renewable energy sources and, crucially, infrastructural improvement projects. What we need is a banking system devoted to the public interest, not one bound to capitalist profit.”

He continued that SYRIZA were aware that fighting back was an “enormous risk” but that they were “psychologically ready for a big fight”. He said that the “political and administrative” reforms that would be necessary to complement the economic changes would necessitate mobilising the social forces who had “a commitment to fighting corruption, croneyism and public sector inefficiency.”

Another important aspect of his address in Euston, intimately linked with his emphasis on democracy, was the degree to which he lent on the value of popular support, mobilisation and participation. “In the present system workers, pensioners, the young and unemployed are only passive observers of political developments, they are almost entirely excluded from the processes of decision-making. We believe this needs to stop. All vital forces of our society need to return to politics and decision-making and the state must be radically transformed to support the vision of a society that takes the control of its life and future prospects into its own hands.

“The political programme that SYRIZA puts forward presents a complete hegemonic project. It is not just about winning elections and forming governments, it’s about gaining power and moving Greece in a democratic socialist direction. As Gramsci once wrote, “the political party of the Left needs to become the basis of modern popular transformation, of the complete popular remaking of the whole of life and old customary relations.”

He also spoke positively about the successes of the Left and popular movements in Europe and further afield in recent years. “After the unprecedented resistance all over the world [in 2011] I think nothing is the same. Last summer SYRIZA came close to winning the elections and taking another step towards the overthrow of the dangerous and corrupt political elites in Greece. We did not succeed then but I hope and believe that we will soon. And I believe in this fight we are not alone. A new wave of popular struggle is emerging all over Europe, the balance of power has started to shift. From Lisbon to Madrid, Paris to Athens a new wave of mobilisation and resistance has begun. Let me make a prediction: I’m sure that very soon it will reach London. The politics of austerity will come to an end. What we need to do is to oversee its demise. Resistance is in the air and from resistance grows the seeds of change.

“For the first time since the 1980s Europe is on edge. It finds itself at the cross roads. It will either follow the path of a permanent state of exception, aiming to control growing popular resistance, or we will choose a radical act of change that will entirely transform the field of economy and politics. We, the European Left, needs to learn from the resistance of the popular movements. And, at the same time, we need to express their aspirations at a political level exactly in order to change what politics means. We need to leave the managerial attitude of technocrats and bureaucrats. We need to unite with the people that express their aspirations for a just and egalitarian world. Our aim is not just to rescue the economy from the death-throes of the neoliberal state, our aim is to change the dominant capitalist paradigm.

“We will not be able to achieve our aim without the solidarity and help of the European Left, the social movements and trade unions because we have common struggles and common interests. The future of Greece, of Europe depends on our success. And I am very sure that we will do it. We will succeed.”

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