Syriza’s Moment of Truth

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Syriza came to power on the back of an impossible pledge – namely, to end austerity whilst keeping Greece within monetary union. The party’s pre-election Thessaloniki Programme promised to write-off most of the country’s €330 billion public debt through a European Conference. They also promised €4 billion in public investment, the creation of 300,000 new jobs and a rebuilding of the welfare state.[1] Politically, Syriza is committed to remaining within European Monetary Union (EMU) in an effort to democratise it. As a heterogeneous organisation with roots in Euro-communism, Syriza wants to move towards socialism through the existing institutions of the European Union. Instead of setting out to smash the capitalist state and exit the euro, they are trying to prise them open from the inside out. This is not an insurrectionary strategy based on mass struggle and workers councils. Rather it is one that emphasises the building of a dominant (hegemonic) block with parliamentarians in the vanguard of the struggle. One of their leading thinkers, Stathis Kouvelakis, recently defined it as “seizing the state from outside and inside, above and below”.[2] Economically, their policies are best described as left-wing Keynesianism. Here the idea is to use the state to engage in public investment projects whilst redistributing resources through progressive taxation. If successful, the results of this process should be twofold. Firstly, the great humanitarian crisis should start to be relieved. Secondly, the economy should be freed from the current spiral of debt and deflation through higher levels of ‘economic demand’. This strategy basically amounts to saving capitalism by ending neoliberalism. In the words of Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, we must remember “capitalism’s inherent failures while trying to save it, for strategic purposes, from itself”.[3]

The problem for Syriza is that none of this is remotely compatible with the intentions of European capitalism. Since the early 1980’s, the European project has been hardwired with neoliberalism to ensure that profits and political power are accumulated by capitalist elites. Syriza may have costed their proposals in line with EU rules, but they are not taking cognisance of the ‘real politik’ of the European project. Even if they wanted to, the European elites could not allow Keynesian expansionary policies. European capital has worked hard to institutionalise neoliberal policy making, with the likelihood of them suddenly changing tack negligible at best. Be-that-as-it-may, the EU elites are actually out to smash their opponents. Syriza’s election represented genuine hope for millions of people across the continent. If they are seen to be successful, the effects on worker’s organisations in other parts of the Eurozone would be transformative. For this reason, the Troika are determined to crush Syriza regardless of the wider effects on Greek society. Focusing on changing the EU from the inside out therefore becomes an extremely dangerous strategy, particularly if Syriza are not mobilising the Greek working classes in sufficient numbers to support them.

What has happened since the election?

From the outset Syriza presupposed that they would be able to negotiate. Specifically, they assumed that support for expansionary policies would be forthcoming in other depressed regions of the Eurozone (France and Italy in particular). Failing this, they believed that the capitalist elite could never afford to let them leave (a so-called Grexit). Unfortunately, the Troika have so far had other ideas. During the first weeks of their tenure, Syriza immediately found themselves on the back foot. First off, the European Central Bank blocked liquidity for the Greek financial system. Thereafter, the Troika strategically withheld €7.2 billion from a previous bailout to force Syriza into another memorandum. Greek capital has also played its part, evacuating billions from the country’s banks, whilst steadfastly refusing to pay their taxes. Safe in the knowledge that the Greek government would soon run out of cash, the Troika have been incredibly aggressive. Meanwhile, Syriza have crossed many of their previously stated ‘red lines’. On February 20 they signed a four month extension of the hated memorandum, effectively relinquishing debt write-down as a policy position. Debt reduction remains an aspiration, but has quietly been dropped as a red line issue. The problem with this is that Greek debt currently stands at a whopping 180% of GDP. Without some way to write this down, Syriza will be forced to implement the austerity they were elected to reverse. Piraeus Port has already been earmarked for privatisation, despite assurances that this would never happen. Syriza have also accepted neoliberal labour market reforms, delayed payments to struggling pensioners and cancelled payments to low paid workers.[4]

In an effort to sell the February deal to his supporters, Syriza leader, Alex Tsipras, argued that it bought the party valuable time. In reality, Syriza had actually conceded 75% of the Troika’s demands, moving to a position that is unrecognisable from the Thessaloniki Programme. The only red lines that remained were further cuts to pensions and further hikes to VAT on energy. Greek pensioners have lost in the region of 35-50% of their total incomes, leaving 45% of the 2.5 million on less than €650 per month.[5] This is well below the EU’s official poverty level. Despite this, the Troika has demanded a pensions cut of 1% of national income and an increase in the retirement age. Almost 1 million people are also struggling with energy poverty. As part of the Thessaloniki Programme Syriza pledged to give 300 kWh per household to the 300,000 families least able to afford it. In response, the Troika has demanded a 10% hike in electricity prices and further energy privatisation. These demands are not being chosen lightly. Rather, they are designed to discredit Syriza by punishing the very people the party has sworn to protect. The Troika are basically out for blood. They want to humiliate Syriza in order to send a signal to workers that they are better off with neoliberal lackeys like New Democracy (or Fine Gael).

Missing payments

On June 5 issues came to a head when Syriza decided not to transfer €300 million to the IMF. Tsipras actually wanted to pay, but was forced to change his mind under considerable pressure from the left of the party. Up to 40 MP’s from the ‘Left Platform’ had previously defied the leadership on the February 20 deal. In May, the same number blocked the appointment of Elena Panariti, a Pasok economist, as the Greek representative to the IMF. On May 24 a motion from the ‘Left Platform’ to miss the June 5 payment was narrowly defeated 95-75. When the Troika eventually pushed for all-out humiliation this group broke ranks, calling for unilateral debt reduction. This position has not been adopted by the leadership, but it is clear that they now face considerable resistance within the organisation. That said, they have moved steadily higher in the polls, thanks to a widespread perception that they are willing to fight. Around 48% of Greek people support Syriza in the latest opinion polls, with only 21% supporting New Democracy (the Tories), 4% supporting Pasok (Labour) and 6% supporting the fascists.[6] More importantly 50% of the population want Syriza to do a deal, with almost 71% committed to remaining within the euro area. On these numbers it would be easy for a radical reformist organisation to tack right, particularly if this means they can hold power over the next few election cycles.

Throughout, Tsipras and Varoufakis have proven their willingness to ‘deal’ and the signs from Europe now seem to be confirming this strategy. According to reports in the Financial Times, Syriza submitted an 11 page document on Monday 22 June which agreed to cross their final red lines. Specifically, the government has agreed to nearly €8 billion in additional austerity over the next two years.[7] Of this, around €1.8 billion is due to come from pension reform via restrictions in early retirement and rising contributions from wage-earners. A further €2 billion will come from VAT rises – €680 million this year and €1.36 billion next year. The Euro elites want to keep the pressure up and may demand even more. Either way the moment of truth will soon be upon us.

The Moment of Truth

If they continue playing by Eurozone rules – as seems increasingly likely – Syriza will need to find €6.7 billion for their international creditors by the end of July.[8] Without the €7.2 billion from the previous bailout they won’t have enough money, leaving them with two clear options – either they submit to the bullying tactics of the Troika institutions and accept a new memorandum or they face them down and refuse to pay.  One path leads back into the mire of austerity, the other to a potentially progressive future outside the constraints of monetary union. Unfortunately, all of the signals now suggest that Syriza will capitulate. Much has been made of Varoufakis’ strategic capabilities, but the Troika have consistently outmanoeuvred their opponent’s, safe in the knowledge that Syriza are unwilling to exit the euro. Despite this, it is becomingly increasingly clear that remaining in the euro is not compatible with reversing austerity. All of their options are extremely difficult but Syriza nevertheless do have options. If the EU wants to play hardball then the Syriza leadership have the ability to reciprocate. Cancelling debt is the obvious first step, but Greece could also simultaneously impose domestic capital controls. If they refuse to take this step, then matters could be taken out of their hands. Once Syriza miss a payment the ECB reserves the right to cut off the emergency liquidity (around €85 billion so far) to Greece’s banks. This would cause widespread devastation, unless it can be countered with a more radical set of socialist strategies. What specifically can Syriza do? First off, they could socialise the banking system, creating a currency that can be used by citizens inside the country. Thereafter, they could force big business to open their books to public scrutiny. As the currency inevitably devalues, Syriza could force capital to drop its prices to protect worker’s wages. They could also provide essential services throughout any transitionary period and protect workers savings. Once this is achieved, Syriza could aim to redistribute wealth through progressive taxation and begin to reorganise the economy for human needs rather than private profit.

All of this is extremely difficult, particularly in the face of international capital, the generals and the fascist boot boys. Most Greeks also remain wedded to the euro, but Syriza can still rely on the loyalty of millions of workers if they call on them to resist the Troika. The alternative is to become yet another loyal opposition for European capital. If Syriza capitulate the ‘Left platform’ should break from the party and join the anti-capitalist resistance. Syriza have been elected on a promise to make life better for the Greek working classes. If they do another austerity deal, workers should resist and move quickly towards a more consistently anti-capitalist alternative.

Brian O’Boyle teaches economics at St Angela’s College (NUIG) and is on the national executive of People Before Profit. He is also the co-author with Kieran Allen of ‘Austerity Ireland’

Notes

[1] Syriza’s Thessaloniki Programme – http://www.syriza.gr/article/SYRIZA—THE-THESSALONIKI-PROGRAMME.html#.VX521vlVikp

[2] Stathis Kouvelakis in debate with Alex Callinicos on Syriza and Socialist Strategy in International Socialism  http://isj.org.uk/syriza-and-socialist-strategy/

[3] Yanis Varoufakis – Confessions of an Erratic Marxist in the Midst of a Repugnant Crisis http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2013/12/10/confessions-of-an-erratic-marxist-in-the-midst-of-a-repugnant-european-crisis/

[4] Michael Roberts – Syriza’s Red Lines in Jacobinhttps://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/greece-syriza-imf-tsipras-debt-euro.

[5] Fight to save Greek Pensions takes centre stage in Brussels and Athens Guardian Newspaper @ http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/21/fight-save-greek-pension-centre-stage-brussels-athens

[6] Clear Lead for Syriza in Public Issue Poll –http://www.phantis.com/news/clear-lead-syriza-public-issue-poll-support-euro-71.

[7]Greek reform prioritises tax rises over pensions Financial Times 2-06-2015 http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f6c48a0a-1900-11e5-a130-2e7db721f996.html#axzz3ds33InjR

[8] Greece Walks Thin Line on IMF Default, Financial Time June 3 2015.  http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ce15d8a0-0953-11e5-8534 00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=intl#axzz3dFqwGbRot.

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4 Responses

  1. Sean

    June 23, 2015 11:31 pm

    “First off, they could socialise the banking system, creating a currency that can be used by citizens inside the country. Thereafter, they could force big business to open their books to public scrutiny. As the currency inevitably devalues, Syriza could force capital to drop its prices to protect worker’s wages. They could also provide essential services throughout any transitionary period and protect workers savings. Once this is achieved, Syriza could aim to redistribute wealth through progressive taxation and begin to reorganise the economy for human needs rather than private profit.”

    Is this the best you can come up with? It’s pure fantasy. I hope you are more rigorous with your students in NUIG!

  2. Fergus Quinlan

    June 24, 2015 2:22 pm

    Very difficult indeed to build socialism in one country, but more difficult to witness the plight of the Greek people and watch the sneering delight of of our finance minister as the are forced back on their knees. One way or another the struggle to extend democracy over the dictatorship of capital must go on. Keep up the good work,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  3. Jaime Dixon

    June 25, 2015 7:52 pm

    So Sean is Cuba a total fantasy? Sure socialism in one country is brutally hard, a tough 50 years for Cuba and not enough help from countries such as Ireland, but the human spirit is still close to infinite!

  4. Des Derwin

    June 28, 2015 11:39 pm

    “This is not an insurrectionary strategy based on mass struggle and workers councils.” Not at this time for all and not at all for some components. Just like the People Before Profit Alliance.