Greece: The Next Four Months*
Since the beginning of the economic crisis, a considerable part of the Greek left has argued that the only realistic alternative for the country is to default on its debts, exit the eurozone, and start printing its own currency.
Freed from Europe’s monetarist prison, the argument runs, Greece would be in a better position to radically restructure its economy in anti-capitalist directions. Such a prospect requires a well-thought-out and detailed “Plan B” in order to confront the enormous challenges that would follow.
The response from those who disagree has three main thrusts. First, it calls attention to the humanitarian disaster that would occur in an already devastated society in the event of a Grexit. Second, it raises doubts over whether such a move would truly be anti-capitalist. And finally, it finds hope in the possibility of a reformed European political landscape, with the rise of an anti-austerity left led by Syriza and bolstered by political change in Spain and elsewhere.
The two opposing sides share assumptions on the root causes of the economic malaise and the adverse effects of the eurozone project, but their different strategies echo debates that run through the history of the European left. For instance, some view the nation-state as the only available terrain for class struggle and believe that European institutions have been built in such a way as to make significant reforms impossible. Others argue that the federal transformation of Europe from below is a possibility.
Over the course of the so-called “Greek drama,” the political developments have made these fixed debates and preordained narratives arise again and again. For those who believe no viable solution can be sought within the eurozone framework, any concession is deemed a retreat. Conversely, those who argue that Greece must avoid confrontation with the European Union (EU) institutions at any cost are prone to announcing victory after every minor compromise.
Both accounts tend to mistake their worldview for the facts. Nothing exemplifies this tendency more than the readings of the recent Eurogroup agreement.
Too Great a Compromise?
Syriza’s electoral strategy rested on three pillars. First, the need for some kind of debt restructuring. Second, the reversal of austerity policies. Third, the immediate implementation of a humanitarian program funded in part by European resources.
The recent compromise was neither a victory, nor a political U-turn as has been suggested. Rather it was a tactical retreat, which has nonetheless given rise to a political horizon that is more accommodating to Syriza’s anti-austerity strategy. More crucially, it marks the beginning of a long period of painstaking negotiations that should lead to a new deal for Greece and a final settlement of its debts.
Although the interim deal extends some of the provisions of the previous bailout programs, there is no pretension that austerity works. A reading of the first list of proposed reforms that the Greek government has agreed to undertake and its recent follow-upvalidates this assertion. It should also be noted that by publicizing its proposals prior to any summit, the Greek government has adopted a new negotiating ethos as a minor step towards restoring transparency and democratic accountability in a country and an institution (the EU) with astounding democratic deficits.
The so-called “reform lists” are crafted in a language designed to appease the neoliberal consensus in the Eurogroup by highlighting institutional reforms aimed at combatting bureaucracy and ensuring the rationalization and modernization of Greece’s macroeconomic infrastructure. Moreover, there is mention of trying to curb tax fraud and avoidance, as well as improve tax revenues.
Contrary to speculation about the imminent rise of the Value Added Tax, the government has proposed to raise revenue by regulating and taxing the sizable online gaming market. This is a sophisticated move that points to the need to regulate online cross-national markets. However, the same can’t be said about a controversial proposal to tackle mass-scale tax avoidance by the short-term employment of a cohort of non-professional inspectors.
Undoubtedly more has to be done to curb large-scale tax fraud and to introduce redistributive policies. Taking on the Greek ruling class and tackling systemic corruption are the first steps for Syriza toward consolidating its domestic and international standing.
And yet, despite challenges and setbacks, the government has shown a strong willingness to break the mold of austerity. Austerity does not have a human face, and Syriza is not in the business of humanizing it. One of the biggest challenges is how to swiftly end the enormous social destruction by stopping home foreclosures, easing access to basic health care, and reinstating energy supply to those in need.
Although the much discussed humanitarian package has been scaled down and its implementation hinges on the “fiscal neutrality” of the adopted measures, it is still set to provide food allowance for up to 300,000 households, restore electrical power to 150,000 homes, and provide rent allowance to 30,000 residencies.
Moreover, it cannot be overlooked that the EU “institutions” have already acknowledged the need to deal with the many families living in extreme poverty; their living standards will be somewhat improved by the agreed-upon measures. These are only the first steps towards the adoption of a more comprehensive relief program.
The commitment not to roll back already completed privatizations has irked many commentators on the Left. However, one needs to acknowledge that the government has pledged to undertake a thorough review process for those not yet launched — for instance the privatization of many of Greece’s peripheral airports and plans for the further privatization of Greece’s Energy Company — and to reassess the legality of others.
This is a process fraught with obstacles, and it underscores the magnitude of the catastrophe caused by the recent pro-austerity governments. For instance, although Minister for Productive Reconstruction (and de facto leader of Syriza’s Left Platform) Panagiotis Lafazanis has revoked approval for the open-cast gold mine at Skouries in Chalkidiki run by El Dorado Gold, the reversal of the “investment” is still not a given. Furthermore, the government as a whole has been very careful to assure the Chinese government that it does not seek to change the status quo with respect to Cosco’s involvement in the Port of Piraeus.
Overall, it is too rash to assert that Syriza has abandoned the bedrock of its electoral manifesto simply because it has scaled back or temporarily suspended some of its promises. On the other hand, the painful compromise leaves no room for euphoria.
Equally disastrous would be the sort of politicking that plays the all-too-familiar game of blaming one’s predecessors for the government’s current entrapment.
The recovery of the dignity of the Greek people that Syriza proclaims as its goal necessitates forging bonds of trust by speaking to the people honestly. And the government has generally been candid about the nature of the compromise. To that end, it is not surprising that according to recent polling 75.4 percent of those interviewed take the view that the so-called interim agreement has extended the logic of the previous bailouts. However, 60 percent approve of the way the government is handling the negotiations.
But opinion surveys aren’t enough. In the new period that lies ahead, the people must take center stage. The degree of popular mobilization will be of paramount importance for the success of the negotiations and the prospects for any real change. Time and again, Syriza has argued that political representation requires the active involvement of the electorate. Taking to the streets in solidarity and support is one way forward, as is holding the government true to its promises.
But Syriza’s popular mandate is to combat austerity within the existing European framework. A disorderly Grexit could well spur the rise of the fascistic Golden Dawn. The political support for the Greek government and the fight against the far right in Europe cannot and should not be confined to Greece. Now is the time to strengthen the links between Greece’s new progressive forces and leftist movements across the globe.
Four Months of Radical Reforms
Although the fate of the Greek state and its citizens is tied to the settlement of the debt and a new plan for growth, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on the grand strategy that is played out in Brussels and Athens. The interim period must witness a series of radical institutional reforms that are not entirely dependent on the (limited) availability of the state’s finances. The way in which public health, education, and social security are structured has to be reimagined.
It is high time, for instance, to design welfare institutions that accommodate some of the new forms of self-organization that have emerged in the years of the economic crisis, as a means of forging bonds of social solidarity among workers. Democratizing the security forces and introducing a new logic of policing will be needed to curb the threat emanating from the extreme right and its politics of fear and resentment.
Restoring the right to citizenship for every second-generation migrant and implementing radical immigration reform that builds on the demolition of the inhumane and ineffective detention center should bring about much-needed relief to the most oppressed in Greek society. Reorienting Greece’s foreign policy toward policies of détente with its many regional foes would pave the way for further reductions in military spending.
The list goes on.
A few weeks ago Greece witnessed a political change of great proportions. For the first time in five years an elected government in Europe’s periphery challenged the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy and internationalized its anti-austerity struggle. For those of us who do not think a eurozone exit will mend Greece’s ills, international solidarity is of paramount importance, especially in light of the threat from the Right.
The radical reform agenda that Syriza plans to implement is destined to meet fierce resistance from the ruling elites in Europe and Greece alike. The compromise has bought critical time. It is equally crucial that we keep a watchful eye on the government, while remembering that tactical retreats do not necessarily lead to strategic defeats.
Originally published @ Jacobin Magazine 03.10.2015