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Greece: Syriza’s surrender

“Elections change nothing” - German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

The almost total surrender of the newly elected Greek government in negotiations over the country’s bailout conditions has dashed hopes that the election victory of Syriza would herald a shift away from the policies of austerity within the European Union. Those who hoped that the Greek revolt would lead a shift away from austerity now have to accept two harsh realities: That democratic decisions and electoral majorities are not accepted by European leaders and that proposals for a reform based on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes will not be taken up by capitalism. The only road open to the workers, no matter who long and arduous, is the road to revolution. 

To measure the extent of the defeat we need only compare the election platform of Syriza, and the position it took into the negotiations, with what was finally agreed.  The main points of the Syriza position were - a rejection of any further bailout extensions; a refusal to to engage with or have its programme monitored by the Troika; an easing of austerity policies; and a reduction of the debt burden.  Yet in the agreement with the EuroGroup all of these points were rejected.  

The bailout is extended by four months and is made dependent on the commitment of the Greek government “to honour their financial obligations to all their creditors fully and timely.”  This recognises the legitimacy of the bailout debt and also the right of creditors (the IMF, EU & ECB) to set the conditions of repayment.  To this end Syriza was compelled to submit its initial programme within two days for approval by the Eurogroup and the Trioka.  Beyond this April was set as a deadline for Greece to complete a final list of austerity measures, which will be “further specified and then agreed” by the Troika.  It was made clear that the content of any programme had to be “based on the current arrangement” - there would be no “roll-back of measures” that had already been implemented and no “unilateral changes” that would carry an additional budgetary cost.  More broadly the agreement prohibits any measures that could have a “negative impact” on “economic recovery or financial stability”.   This clearly puts a question mark over Syriza’s commitment to raise the minimum wage and restore collective bargaining rights.  There is also no mention of debt write downs - the only “deft relief” on offer is a possibility of a reduction in interest rates and a rescheduling which would make very little difference to the debt burden.        

The only area in which Syriza got its way was in having explicit references to the hated “Memorandum of Understanding” (the list of austerity measures originally agreed to as part of the loan agreement) and the Troika removed from the agreement.  However, they are still there albeit under different names.  The MoU is recast as the “Master Financial Assistance Facility Agreement” (MFAFA) while the Trioka is transformed into the “institutions”.  Apart from these superficial changes the agreement made by Syriza is the same as that agreed by the right wing government it replaced.    

Appeal to reason 

The outcome of the negotiations hardly came as a surprise given the stance that Syriza had adopted since its election victory.  Its overriding objective was to demonstrate that they were reliable “partners” who were fully committed to the European Union and the euro.  To this end the Greek finance minister and chief negotiator Yanis Varoufakis declared that the Syriza government would be “among the most enthusiastic reformers in Europe” and that it was wrong for other states “see us as adversaries.”  With this approach there was no prospect of Syriza being confrontational or engineering a crisis (with a threat to default) in order to advance their programme.  This meant they were left without any bargaining tools whatsoever.  

The only thing that Syriza could bring to the negotiations was an appeal to reason - for the EU governments and financial institutions to recognise that burden of the debt was too great, that the conditions of the bailout were too severe, and that the potential growth of the Greek economy was being stifled.  These are reasonable and rational arguments that could apply not just to Greece but the world economy as a whole.  Neither are they new.  They have been made time and time again over the period of the great recession by political parties, trade unions and economists.  Yet none of these arguments, or the policies that arise from them, have been adopted by any government. 

The problem for the advocates of a strategy for stabilising capitalism is that they fail to recognise the nature the capitalist crisis. For it is not a crisis of debt or low growth but a crisis of profitability.  If it is understood in these terms then the adherence of governments to austerity, rather than being misguided or irrational, makes perfect sense.  What is the purpose of wage reduction, cuts in public spending, the deterioration of working conditions, privatisation and the slashing of business taxes other than to increase profitability?  The financial bailouts that are crushing countries such as Greece are merely mechanisms to force such policies through. 


The disappointment with Syriza is undoubtedly exaggerated by the claims made for the party by much of the left.  In commentaries it was described as “left wing” or “socialist” - there was even a claim that it was at the head of a “workers’ government”.  However, the reality is quite different.  Syriza draws support from a wide range of classes.  This includes workers but it also includes the middle class and those sections of the capitalist class that have lost out under the Troika regime.  At a leadership level it is dominated by representatives of the professional classes.  

Its cross class composition is reflected in its reformist programme and nationalistic politics.  Throughout the election campaign Alexis Tsipras made calls “a new social and patriotic alliance” and an end to “national humiliation”.  His first act as prime minister was to attend a WWII commemoration led by the Archbishop of Athens.  It was also no surprise that Syriza chose the Independent Greeks (a party that has built up a support base by agitating against immigration and multiculturalism) as its coalition partners.  They have also supported the election of member of the conservative New Democracy party as State President. Syriza are prepared to ally themselves with parties of the right and far right that share its nationalistic perspective.

What informs the politics of Syriza more that anything is the experience of defeat.  It is no coincidence that the rise of the party came on the back of the failure of the struggle by Greek workers against the harsh conditions associated with the bailout.  The period covering 2010-2012 was an intense period of class struggle that included mass protest and industrial action.  When this militancy died down an electoral strategy, which prioritised the election of a left government as the most realistic means to overturn austerity, began to take hold.  It was the defeat of the workers struggle and the onset of this new “realism” that fuelled the rise of Syriza and put it into government.  

However, the defeatist perspective of Syriza is not just a reaction to recent setbacks for the cause of labour within Greece.  It arises out of the much more profound belief that (over the last thirty years) the working class on a global scale has suffered an historic and permanent defeat that makes any socialist project impossible.   Within this ideological framework the task of the left is not to replace capitalism but to preserve it in order to prevent a collapse into something worse.  This perspective is been articulated most clearly by Yanis Varoufakis in his widely circulated article - “Confessions of an Erratic Marxist”.  He poses the question:

“should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?
For him the “answer is clear” - because the crisis is more likely to lead to a bloodbath than a better alternative to capitalism there is no option for the left other than to preserve capitalism.       

The attempts by Syriza to cover their retreat by stoking up nationalist sentiment and suggesting that some governments were more sympathetic to their position than others obscures the fact that the real division in Europe in between classes rather than nations.   It is not the case of northern against southern Europe, or of Germany intimidating the other states into supporting its pro-austerity position.  The reality is that in relation to bailout negotiations there was unanimity across the EuroGroup members that nothing should be conceded to Greece.  This was partly to dampen any hopes that elections can overturn austerity, but primarily it is because austerity is the favoured policy of the ruling classes across Europe, including in the states that have been subjected to bailouts.  We need only look at Ireland to see how capital, both national and foreign, has benefited massively from the bailout.                    


The experience of Greece demonstrates the weakness of an anti-austerity strategy that is centred solely on electoralism.   The capitalist class and their political repetitiveness will not recognise any democratic choice that falls outside the austerity consensus, even one as limited as that posed by Syriza.  So austerity is not just an economic assault on workers’ living standards but also a political one upon their democratic rights.  This is because the draconian measures it demands cannot be imposed through conventional liberal democratic means. It is no coincidence that during the period of the financial crisis we have witnessed capitalist states becoming increasing authoritarian - whether that is through the transfer powers to unaccountable institutions such as the Trioka, or the introduction of laws to severely restrict protests and industrial action.   This period has also seen the rise of openly Fascist parties, such as the Golden Dawn in Greece, which threaten a rule of terror.  They may not yet be the favoured option of the capitalist classes but they are in reserve as their most ruthless enforcers.  


The absence of a reformist path and the real threat of tyranny leave revolution as the means out of the crisis for the working class.  Austerity is the only programme of capitalism and for it to be overturned capitalism itself has to be challenged.  As long as it remains dominant, whether that be in Greece, Germany or Ireland, the polices of austerity will continue.  Within this framework revolution is not an option but a necessity.  


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