The following questions and answers with an audience took place after a talk Alexis Tsipras gave to SYRIZA’s London branch in Friend’s House in Euston on Friday, March 15th. Coverage of the speech itself can be found here. Some of the questions have been condensed to remove lengthy preambles and/or tangents but they remain an accurate reflection of the query posed by the audience member. Rónán Burtenshaw
Q. Could you give us a few reflections on what we can learn from the Left in Latin America and particularly the legacy of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela?
A. That’s a good question because I was in Venezuela a few days ago. What impressed me about my recent visit was the tens of thousands of people waiting patiently to go past the remains of Chávez. They weren’t expressing grief waiting to pay their final respects but they were showing hope, resolution and determination. This signifies that for the last fourteen years this process has been ongoing in Venezuela and is continuing. This shows us that no social transformation or movement can be sustained without popular support. Chávez was accused by his opponents of being a dictator but I have not met many dictators who have won thirteen elections in fourteen years. For us it is clear proof that without popular support it is not possible to carry out these reforms. This is what we can learn from the Latin American experience, and particularly Venezuela.
Q. How can Greece create enough room to manoeuvre at the international level to resist pressure from the creditors, the IMF and the EU and follow a real alternative path to austerity?
A. How will our lenders, creditors and our partners in the European Union be able to answer that question? It would be the first time that they are under this pressure from a government with popular support. How would they deal with this pressure? I am certain that austerity isn’t the way out of this crisis and, in fact, that it is the political aim of those who force it upon us. They are fully aware of that. They want to blackmail people with this enormous debt, which has been worsened by government policy, and by the threat of expulsion from the Euro. The clear aim is to create the conditions where the southern European belt will be a place of cheap labour and favourable conditions for exploitation, and they have been confronted so far with no opposition from any of the governments from the south. Instead what these governments are doing is accepting every absurd measure that’s being proposed to them. But once they have resistance from a government with popular support the balance of fear will change, it would move to the other side of the battlefield.
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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.”
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A Greek tragedy
A monumental drama is playing out before our eyes. It is a true Greek tragedy. The plot: A society is being pushed to its limits. The denouement is not yet determined, but survival is at stake and prospects are precarious. Greece is at the sharp end of a radical and risky experiment in how far accumulation by dispossession can go, how much expropriation can be endured, how far the state can be subordinated to the market. It is a global narrative, but the story is a few episodes ahead here.
Greece is the crucible.[i] It is a caldron where concentrated forces are colliding in a process that will bring forth either a reconfiguration of capitalism or the dawn of its demise.
Salaries, pensions, public services are falling, while prices and taxes are rising. Massive asset stripping is underway. Water, power, ports, islands, public buildings are for sale. Unemployment, emigration and evictions have brought a sense of a society unraveling. Homeless people wander the streets and scavenge for food in bins or beg it from the plates of those eating in tavernas. If they are immigrants, they are terrorised. Those looking into a horizon without hope either drift into desolation or perform the ultimate decisive act of suicide. Some have done so in private spaces, while others have chosen public places to underline the political nature of their fate, as they jump from heights, set themselves on fire or shoot themselves. In April 2012, Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist, who felt he could no longer live a dignified life after his pension had been slashed, shot himself in front of parliament. His last words were: “I am not committing suicide. They are killing me.” He urged younger people to fight.
Speaking to Greeks, it is hard to find any without a far reaching systemic critique. They tell you so many details of the deceits of the troika, the corruption of government, the decline in their own standards of living, the pervasive sense of social disintegration. When asked if they see any hope, few answer in the affirmative.
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