Syriza: dark at the end of the tunnel

Submitted by AWL on 30 November, 2016 - 12:58 Author: Theodora Polenta

Participants in the Second Congress of Greece’s once-left party, Syriza, on 13-16 October, were reduced in the role of applauders of the Syriza-Anel government’s memorandum doctrines.

Reminiscent of the Tory Prime Minister Samaras, who defended the implementation of the second [2012] Memorandum by saying that “there is light at the end of the tunnel”, Alexis Tsipras claimed the third memorandum could bring a new dawn. “We continue to implement a fair deal and we expect from the institutions and our partners to meet their obligations ... The deepest darkness is before dawn,” he said. There was no serious opposition at the conference. Despite “murmurs” prior to the conference, no candidate challenged Alexis Tsipras for the Syriza presidency. He was elected president by 93.54%.

The supposed left opposition within Syriza is the “movement of 53”, nominally led by finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos and by Thodoris Dritsas, who has served as the Minister of Shipping and Island Policy and signed off (albeit, if we take his words for it, in a pool of tears and guilt) the sale of the port of Piraeus to the Chinese corporation Cosco. The “movement of 53” did not raise a “no to the memoranda”. It said there was no other way but to continue on the memoranda, but Syriza should explain to the working class that the implementation of austerity is a result of enforcement action by the creditors and not Syriza’s choice.

Katerina Knitou said: “we must avoid the perception that the defeat and compromise is our strategic choice and we must clarify that the memorandum is not ours.”

The first conference of Syriza, in 2013, committed to abolish all memoranda, and that fundamental commitment was at the centre of Syriza’s rise to lead Greece’s first-ever government of the Left. That has been replaced by the realpolitik of a continuation of memoranda and drip-by-drip release of the bailout doses. The first conference had the potentially subversive position of “no sacrifice for the euro”, but that position was eliminated from the second conference. The programmatic position of Syria against privatisation and for renationalisation has been abandoned for the vague promise of “recovery of the public wealth from the neocolonial super-fund” (to which the Syriza-Anel government has transferred public assets in preparation for privatisation).

The Syriza conference in July 2013 reflected the great wave of mass struggles during the 2010-2012 period. Also the relative lull of the struggles during 2013; but it was framed around the political objective for a united subversive government of the left, which was presented as a break with the memoranda years. The revolutionary left, inside and outside Syriza, was wary of the risk of entrapment that the slogan of a government of the left might entail, but convinced that a political solution was needed. Its political deficiencies were a lack of strategy and a lack of preparation.

There was no “Plan B” to deal with the prospect of blackmailing (in the form of class war, capital flights, threatened bankruptcy) by the EU-ECB-IMF “Troika”. Despite Syriza’s loose connections with the anti-globalisation and anti-austerity movement in Europe and worldwide, there was no attempt at a pan-European mobilisation to defend the in-waiting government of the Left. The ideological framework was an attempt at synthesis between the traditions of left Eurocommunism (strategic structural changes) and a more “Third International” perspective of transitional programme and transitional politics.

The emphasis was on a rupture with the modern “experiences” of the centre-left in Europe. It described the radical left as a political project hostile to the class interests of European social democracy. Tsipras and his circle of top advisers successively chopped away that framework. First they must address the “humanitarian crisis”. First they must have a national salvation government.

At the first conference of Syriza, according even to Tsipras, political alliances should be limited to the left of the political spectrum. But even then, central officials of Syriza said that “a national salvation government” required a broader consensus, excluding only Golden Dawn and Samaras’s Tories. A big portion of Syriza then was ready to prepare for conflict and rupture with the national and international capitalist class, with the financial oligarchy and political establishment, with the deep state. But the top echelons already sang other songs. “First we will seek an exit from the crisis, then we will consolidate productive development and investment, and then redistribution will follow”.

The Left Platform warned that Plan A - rational negotiations and reasoning with the lenders, Merkel will accept and everthing will be bright” - was doomed to lead to a humiliating defeat. Proposals for a Plan B and the necessary preparations for a collision with the eurozone leaders were a central point of confrontation at the congress, deflected by the slogan “No Sacrifice for the Euro”. What was at stake and the intensity of the confrontation were underestimated by sections of the radical left outside Syriza.

By now, Syriza is a completely different party. Exit from the crisis, according to the October 2016 conference, will come through a development law to attract investments, utilisation of the EU ESPA funding, restructuring of the debt, entry into the Quantitative Easing program of the European central bank, and the fight against corruption! It is a typical social democratic answer in the era of the social-liberal degeneration of social democracy. Alexis Tsipras has been visiting the congresses of European social democracy, and apparently aiming for the assimilation of Syriza into the degenerated centre-left neoliberal European social-democratic family. Meanwhile the cuts in pensions, the neoliberal reforms in the pension system, the tax increases, the house repossessions, the threats to further dismantle worker protection laws and trade union rights, build up rage among the working-class majority cancel all hopes of an “exit from the crisis” grounded in the masses.

On the issue of refugees, despite the anti-racist credentials of the majority of Syriza members and of some of Syriza’s cabinet ministers, such as Tasia Christodoulopoulou, Syriza members were invited to support the agreement between Greece, the EU and Turkey. A country that every summer “welcomes” over 21 million tourists, considers “intractable” a human welcome of 60,000 refugees. NATO has installed a fleet in the Aegean and is discussing the relocation of its base at Incirlik, in Turkey, to Greece under the “left” government! The Syriza government has not even verbally condemned (as most of the EU states and USA has done) Erdogan’s clampdown and jailing of the leadership of the left-pro-Kurdish HDP.

Another key issue of the 2013 conference was the character of the party itself. An invocation of “direct democracy” which supposedly had emerged from the occupations of the city squares as an alternative model to outdated democratic centralism, the ideas and tactics of the Latin American “left populist” movements, and a heightened emphasis on tactics and communication, were used to set up a completely unaccountable leadership structure.

At the October 2016 conference, to further tame the Syriza central committee, an amendment was proposed to Syriza’s constitutional clause that only 25% of the CC members can be salaried government officials. The proposal was for MPs to be excluded from the 25% quota. The conference voted for MPs to remain part of the 25% quota. Alexis Tsipras stepped into the conference floor to challenge the outcome: “If you understand what you have just voted against, that is ok. But if you do not understand, there is a problem because you have just voted against my proposal!”

Tsipras proceeded to request an immediate re-vote, which he won! Euclid Tsakalotos, from the “movement of the 53”, won first place in the vote for the CC; Nikos Filis, minister of education, who earned credit from fighting the church in favour of the abolition of religious education, second; and Panos Skourletis, who got credit by protesting against the privatization of DEH, third. That reflected a timid attempt by the delegates to voice some criticism. In a government restructuring following the conference, Alexis Tsipras removed Filis from the ministry of education and demoted Skourletis from the ministry of energy to the ministry of “citizen protection”. Meanwhile, the leading core of Popular Unity, the former Syriza left which quit in July 2015, has chosen to focus on the national currency.

The Popular Unity has politically self-identified as the “drachma party”, instead of a workers’ party of the anti-memorandum struggle for the socialist reorganisation of the Greek economy, which would imply a conflict with the European institutions, and not vice versa. The focus in the national currency reflects a false, non-Marxist understanding of the causes of the crisis. The priority is the overthrow of the memoranda, which are the tools of profitability of the Greek and European capitalism under the context of global capitalist crisis, and the social transformation, rather than the concentration on a monetary fetish. Popular Unity remains within a Keynesian logic of “productive restructuring” and “rationalisation of production”.

Since when has the radical Left’s aim is the “reconstruction” of the capitalist economy, and not its socialist transformation? Popular Unity has in avertedly abandoned any references to the crucial goal of a radical redistribution of income at the expense of capitalist class and in the interests of the working class. The antidote to memorandum, degradation of working and living conditions and unemployment will come through the productive development.

From a Marxian perspective, the struggle for the overthrow of the memoranda under the hegemony of the revolutionary left is not with the aim of launching an elusive insular and utopian road to national capitalist development with the drachma.

The first priority should be the imposition of “memoranda” on the rich (radical redistribution of income, workers’ control expanding to all sectors private and public of the capitalist economy). The dismal failure of Syriza, the re-orientation of Podemos and Portugal’s Left Bloc into collaborationism, the defeat of the radical movements of the Arab Spring, the setbacks of the promising albeit populistic movements and experiments in Latin America, and the shrinkage of the once strong radical Left in Europe, with the rise of the xenophobic far right, raise questions for the tactics and strategy of the Left.

There are specificities by country and region, but also common themes: the strong reactionary shift of the capitalist class, the strengthening of the extreme right in the conditions of crisis, the global economic crisis. The contradictions of the capitalist class are exacerbated. This makes radical change more difficult radical change but also urgently necessary, due to the worsening conditions of all subordinate classes. The revolutionary left should reach out to all the ideological and political currents that have differentiated or seceded from the ranks of Syriza, aiming to advance a united front. The Syriza-Anel government will continue their anti-working class attacks. The exodus of the remaining rank and file from Syriza cannot be halted. The revolutionary left should converse constructively with all these forces in order to embolden the anti-capitalist front.

Since the eruption of the financial crisis in 2008, Greece’s economy has shrunk by almost 30 per cent — a decline unparalleled in peacetime, outside the collapse of the economy of the former Soviet Union amid the restoration of capitalism in the 1990s. The three austerity programmes imposed on Greece since 2010 have led to a 40 per cent cut in pensions and wages, as taxes have been hiked by around 25 per cent. Now, 30 per cent of Greeks report that they cannot afford to heat their homes in winter. A Doctors of the World report states that budget cuts to health care have led to 25 per cent of Greeks no longer having health coverage and a 51 per cent increase in infant mortality in the last three years.

The country’s unemployment rate is 28 per cent overall and 50 per cent for youth under 25. This has slashed social security payments to Greece’s contributory-based public health system. Fully 45 per cent of Greek retirees live below the official poverty line, and the average monthly pension in Greece has fallen from €1,350 in 2009 to €833 this year. Retirees often provide the only income in entire families. The OECD has found that average Greek household income has fallen by 27.5 per cent since 2007. The Financial Times notes that the “bleak draft budget for 2016” predicts that the economy will shrink by 1.3 per cent overall next year on top of a projected 2.3 per cent decline this year. Greece’s foreign debt is more than €315 billion and rising. The New York Times comments:

“The draft budget also expects the central government’s debt to rise to 198 per cent of gross domestic product next year, from 187.6 per cent now.

“The new bailout loans account for much of the increase.”

Timeline

January 2004: formation of Syriza as a coalition around Synaspismos, a continuation of the left-Eurocommunist strand.

October 2009: Pasok wins big majority in Greek election (Syriza on 4.6%). Pasok announces that it has found government finances much worse than it thought; imposes cuts and then in May 2010 enters the first of a series of “Memoranda” with the EU, European Central Bank, and IMF, spelling out cuts in return for bailouts (in fact bailouts of the commercial banks which had lent to the Greek government)

May and June 2012: After the fall of the Pasok administration, and some months of a caretaker regime, two general elections. Syriza wins 17% in May, and 27% in June, but the right-wing party New Democracy narrowly wins.

July 2013: first congress of Syriza as a party rather than a coalition. Commits to reversing cuts; abolishing or defaulting on the “illegitimate” bulk of Greece’s debt; public ownership and public control of the banking system; taxation of domestic big capital; against privatization and in favour of renationalisation. September 2014: Syriza leaders replace (de facto) the Syriza congress policies by the “Thessaloniki declaration”, promising to renegotiate a better deal with the EU and distribute the proceeds in welfare measures.

January 2015: Syriza wins election under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras. Forms a coalition government with the right-wing populist Anel. The activists of the occupations of city squares, the anti-austerity movements, and the 30-plus general strikes since 2010 are asked to sit back and play a supportive role.

February 2015: Despite a high-profile tour by Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, eurozone finance ministers refuse to give Greece a better deal. Syriza extends the Memorandum; pledges to cut spending on health care, education, mass transit, local government, and other essential social services. Utilises all reserves in order to meet debt payments.

July 2015: In a referendum, called by the Syriza government, on EU austerity terms, 61% vote “Oxi” (no). Massive rallies all around Greece, 500,000 in Athens. But over the next weeks, Tsipras pushes through approval of EU austerity terms, sacks left cabinet ministers, and asks all MPs who do not vote for bailout measures to resign. Syriza leftists quit to form Popular Unity.

September 2015: Syriza wins narrow re-election and forms a new coalition government with ANEL. Voter turnout at 56.6%, is the lowest recorded since the fall of the military junta in 1974.

November 2015: Syriza government passes a new austerity budget and expels deputies who voted against the measures. The budget is passed just days after the outgoing president of parliament, Zoe Kostantopoulou, issues the final report of the “Truth Committee on the Greek Debt.” The report notes that: “The Third MoU [Memoranda of Understanding] that accompanies the August 2015 loan agreement, just like the previous ones of 2010 and 2012, transfers the weight of structural adjustment to Greek society. As a result, the Third MoU will increase poverty, class polarization and social exclusion”. Its measures “are of equal or greater social and fiscal impact, compared to the preceding ones.”

March 2016: Syriza-Anel government and Tsipras act as the gatekeeper of fortress Europe. At the Brussels EU summit; Alexis Tsipras signs a bilateral agreement with Turkey which stipulates that “irregular” migrants must be deported with greater speed back to Turkey. (Following legal studies, the UN has designated the deal between Turkey and Greece as illegal).

October 2016: Syriza agrees to further austerity measures. The Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers approves the release of €2.8 billion to the Greek government, after the Syriza-led coalition has met the deadline for implementing austerity and privatisations. Legislation earmarks a series of state-owned companies for privatisation, including the Thessaloniki and Athens Water Supply and Sewerage Companies, the Public Power Company, the Athens Metro and ELVO (a bus and army vehicle manufacturer). The sale of these assets will be overseen by the Hellenic Company for Assets and Participation, a “super-fund” to which all Greek state assets to be sold off will eventually be transferred. The super-fund is to have a life span of at least 99 years; half of all its revenues are to go to service Greece’s debts.