Seven Lessons from Greece

Since taking power, Syriza hasn’t accepted what’s been imposed, but instead fought to create a new political landscape.

A celebration in Athens after Syriza's January victory. Vagelis Poulis / Flickr

For years, radical forces in Europe have only been able to resist austerity policies, rarely engaging in offensive strategic thought and action, and always from outside government. But on February 6, when thousands demonstrated in favor of the new Greek government, in front of an unpoliced and open parliament, it was clear that something significant had changed.

In the words of Syriza central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis, there is a “spreading mood of mobilization, of regained dignity, of a desire both to support the government in the face of the blackmail and to put pressure on it to halt any retreat.” Against Germany’s insistence that “elections do not change anything,” against leftist fears that the government would be forced to back down immediately, Syriza seems to have opened space for heightened struggle against neoliberal hegemony in Europe.

The new administration can still backtrack, sell out, or lose in many ways, and its opponents might succeed in closing the space opened since the election. But we have to remember the impressions and lessons of these weeks — however ephemeral they might turn out to be — because they testify to something rare: a political invention. Syriza has turned the mere possibility of anti-troika politics into concrete practice. In doing so, they have forged a path that is relevant to anti-austerity forces in the rest of Europe.

The lessons below do not tell us anything about winning strategies, but only about the creation of the space for strategizing. This space is a small one, and is dependent on social movement mobilization and electoral success.

The strategy itself is limited to the short-term goal of restructuring Greek debt and ending austerity. Even if it is not a long-term plan for social transformation, it has forged a new political landscape in which such strategies of social transformation might impose themselves as more than abstract ideological projections. In a year where a Podemos victory in Spain is a distinct possibility, it is vital to understand how Syriza has managed to create cracks in the edifice of neoliberal Europe.

1. Decide on the principal contradiction.

Syriza only had one option after taking office: go on the offensive. This strategy has been premised on and legitimized by Syriza’s position as the governing party, empowered by a majority that rejects the commitments of the past government. While the party’s rise to power is a consequence of the strong movements during the crisis, Syriza’s victory must be related to their exhaustion and limitations.

While many in Syriza would have doubtlessly preferred to form a movement- or class-based government, they were not elected merely by the movements or “the class,” but by the disaffection of millions of Greeks with the established parties, especially Pasok. As Akis Gavriilidis writes, “Syriza’s spectacular ascension is linked not to a faithful expression, but equally, if not more, to an infidelity, a disloyalty.”

The cause of this disaffection was not only the destructive impact of the austerity memoranda accepted by the social democrats, but also the shame connected to the loss of national sovereignty. Syriza’s simultaneous analysis and denunciation of Greece’s status as a “debt-colony, an occupied zone,” articulates this sense of humiliation and disempowerment with the promise of national liberation, a form of loyalty connected more to the imaginary community of the nation than to class.

All this provides the background for Syriza’s decision to form a “national” government rather than a “class” government. In other words, they argue that, despite their agreement with Marxists that the “essential contradiction” is that between capital and labor, the salient contradiction — at this conjuncture and from the point of view of Greek parliamentary democracy — is between Greece and its creditors.

Accordingly, Tsipras has entered into a coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), which was the only way to create a viable anti-austerity government. The alternative to this coalition would have been an alliance with one of two pro-austerity parties, To Potami or Pasok. In either case, Syriza would have been left with no room to address the issue of debt.

To say that that the primary line of antagonism is between the Greeks and their creditors does not mean that the internal class conflicts are papered over. Rather, the local political and economic elite is already so weakened and delegitimized — and their subservience and collusion with the international financiers so apparent — that their importance is secondary. In this sense, the struggle with international creditors is a national class struggle.

The national-popular “we” that is constructed in opposition to the memoranda is one that includes the sexist and racist politics of ANEL. And in order to secure the social majority that is needed to wield the state against the lenders and the tax-avoidant rich, Syriza would have had to include such bigotry in order to avoid fighting on multiple fronts, as a minority. Yet despite some understandable nervousness, some of Syriza’s initial actions — such as granting citizenship to Greek-born children of migrants — suggest that it will not allow its alliance with ANEL to dilute its policy on immigrant and minority rights.

One might still be nervous that the Independent Greeks coalition will allow racism to fester. But by framing questions of national sovereignty in more popular than national terms, and in relation to a progressive agenda, Syriza can narrow the appeal of Golden Dawn and other xenophobic “solutions” to austerity.

2. Seize the initiative.

After five years in which Greek society has resisted austerity, Syriza’s election constitutes the possibility of offensive action at the state level. The swift maneuvers of the new government had the effect of reassuring Syriza’s social and political base, and putting its international partners and opponents on their back heels.

Domestically, Syriza has done what surprisingly few newly elected governments do today. To the great shock of the international community, they have used their sovereign prerogatives to make immediate decisions in line with their election promises. While few of these are new laws — eg, rehiring the cleaners at the ministry of finance — they are significant symbolically. Syriza has at once calmed the parts of its constituency that were afraid that they would “sell out,” and demonstrated its resolve to opponents in the troika.

The party’s show of post-election strength made them able to choose — at least temporarily — the terrain and character of the struggle. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis‘s refusal to negotiate with the troika split up the joint army of the European Union (EU), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Central Bank (ECB). By rejecting the need for more loans, Greece has shifted the terms of negotiation from the conditions for additional loans (structural reforms), to the conditions for restructuring existing loans (grace periods, interest rates, maturities, debt haircuts) — while the risk of Greek exit from the euro looms in the background.

Seizing the initiative means refusing the opponent’s imperatives and enlarging the area for autonomous action and thinking. A case in point: Varoufakis’s calm demeanor during a BBC interview in which the journalist was stressing the imminent risk of a bank run. To the interviewer’s appeal, “But, but people are taking money out of their accounts,” Varoufakis responded drily: “Allow me to say that you are confusing the symptom with the problem.”

In saying so, Varoufakis was not disregarding the risk and pain of a bank run, but making an informed decision to prefer the risk of a short and hard bleeding instead of continuing the slow and even deadlier hemorrhaging that Greece has endured so far. Varoufakis sped up the process. When one cannot abolish the risk or avoid the pain, one can at least decide on its timing, and the extent to which the opponent is exposed to the same risks and pain.

3. Know your opponents’ fear, use it against them.

Greece’s original private creditors have incurred very little of the costs stemming from their decision to lend. More than 70 percent of Greece’s bailout money has been immediately passed on to save these creditors, which were often German and French banks. Through this process, Greece’s debts to the private sector were converted to loans with institutional creditors such as the ECB, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), and the eurozone countries.

The economic and social cost of the crisis were taken on by the Greek population in the form of “structural adjustments” — through deep cuts to welfare, public employment, and minimum wages, as well as a fire sale of public assets. What Syriza has seen is that in these almost colonial conflicts, one must bring the war to the elites or citizens of the dominant countries. Syriza’s decision to shift the terrain of struggle accomplishes precisely this. The alliance with the euroskeptic ANEL helps increase the fear of a Greek default and euro exit. On the new ground chosen by Syriza, its opponents more evenly share the risks.

Greece’s strongest weapon in the upcoming negotiations is clearly its creditors’ fear that a Greek default and exit from the euro would have disastrous effects on the financial markets. After meeting Varoufakis in London, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne expressed the widely shared fear that the standoff between Greece and eurozone is “the greatest risk to the global economy,” and “a rising threat to the British economy. And we have got to make sure that in Europe, as in Britain, we choose competence over chaos.”

This statement could mark a crucial change in the structure of geo-financial fright. Suddenly the hegemons are feeling fear rather than simply the Greeks, and the notion of competence no longer simply refers to the imposition of economic “necessity,” but to the necessity of compromises on the part of Europe.

In a sense, Syriza’s threat is an indication of the truth of the old saying, “Owe a bank $100, and that’s your problem. Owe a bank $1,000,000, and that’s the bank’s problem.” Yet it is much more than a direct threat to the creditors’ balance sheets. For Osborne, it is the risk that a Greek collapse will be contagious and hit the City Of London. For EU elites, it is a threat to the institutional cohesion and symbolic and geopolitical prestige of the European Monetary Union. Still, it is a fear that Syriza cannot play on too openly, as they have campaigned on a pro-euro platform, and a large majority of Greeks are against euro exit.

If the Germans think that a Greek exit will come at the cost of great financial instability and risk contagion in countries such as Portugal and Italy, Syriza will have managed to unsettle Germany and its unbending austerity line. Continuing to impose strict conditions on Greece could occasion default and exit, which would endanger the future of the common currency. If, on the other hand, the Germans abandoned the strict conditions, they would risk the hegemony of neoliberalism in Europe. A victory of such magnitude for Syriza would strengthen anti-austerity forces everywhere.

While Syriza very consciously plays on the concerns of its lenders, its negotiators are doing their best to assuage any fears that might provoke a renewed attack. Greece’s institutional creditors have presented the bailouts of the failed bank investments in Greece as “aid” for the country rather than as a way to save German and French banks.

However, it has produced a situation in which the German electorate has lost its desire to “help the lazy Greeks.” The German government has been giving the impression that it fears this political cost more than Greek exit. For this reason, Syriza has been careful not to play on Germany’s wariness of the people it has so carefully duped.

Thus Varoufakis has insisted that Greece will not ask the taxpayers of Europe to pay more to Greece, but rather to pay less, or over a longer period with lower interest. Instead of asking for a bailout — the political cost of which would be unbearable for the German government — he is simply asking the creditors to accept that some of the debt is a sunk cost. And because the German public has long seen the loans to Greece as a cost rather than interest-carrying, they already in some sense consider these loans in similar terms.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s decision to meet with the Russian and Chinese ambassadors as his first act of international diplomacy is an equally important example of leveraging the fear of the enemy. It has been widely noted that Greece’s rapprochement with Russia presents the EU with the risk of a significant breach in its geopolitical strategy, especially in relation to the problem of Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia. The frantic diplomacy of French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Minsk demonstrates the sudden European desire for a de-escalation vis-à-vis Russia.

It is perhaps equally significant that Syriza approaches Russia and China together — the two countries recently set up the BRICS’ New Development Bank, which is designed to act as a competitor to the IMF. When observers warn Greece against becoming a Russian puppet, they overlook that the country’s possible alliance with Russia is principally used to make Greece’s European partners nervous and pliable. It is a contingency strategy in case Greece is forced out of the euro against all expectations. Flirting with an opponent’s enemy is one of the few ways a small country like Greece can play the geopolitical game, even if this tactic is not without risk.

4. Divide your enemies.

In the past few weeks, we have already seen President Obama and Bank of England Governor Mike Charney express cautious support for Greece’s negotiating position. Both represent countries whose financial systems would suffer from a Greek default and euro exit, but who would pay little of the cost connected to Syriza’s proposed debt restructuring.

Furthermore, Obama’s position may reflect a nervousness about a closer alliance between Greece and Russia. In this way, Syriza’s truculence has had the secondary effect of expanding a fissure between the EU countries and their Anglo-American allies. There are already signs that the French government, which Merkel has forced to backtrack from its initial austerity skepticism, is trying to position itself as the mediator between Greece and Germany.

Of all the recent moves made by Syriza, the one that has done the most to produce room for maneuver was best explained by Varoufakis, in his press conference with the Dutch finance minister and Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem: “The Greek government will not negotiate with the troika, only with official partners.”

This act very simply and very decisively drove a wedge into the united front of its creditors. Perhaps it does not matter much if Dijsselbloem did in fact whisper, “you just killed the troika” to Varoufakis, because in the media this death sentence was presented as a fait accompli from which the troika will find it hard to recover. At a minimum, these divisions will make coordinated action and pressure from the IMF, the EU, and the ECB more difficult. Indeed, last summer, Varoufakis suggested that Greece might enter into a strategic alliance with the IMF, which by then had begun to recognize the counter-productive effects of austerity.

5. Politicize everything.

By refusing to bargain with the technocratic representatives of power, Varoufakis rejected outright the negotiations Pasok and New Democracy engaged in. This refusal simply recognizes the sham of brokering a deal with agents who have an institutional mandate to impose conditions, but no political power of decision.

Moreover, Syriza has been adamant that it will honor its debts to its private creditors. This allows Greece to temporarily insulate the front with the international financial markets and focus the struggle on the primary line of conflict — that with institutional creditors, who by now control more than 75 percent of Greek sovereign debt. Through this move, Greece avoids a battle with the amorphous, irrational, and cynical financial markets, instead focusing its attention on a more rational opponent.

Even though the troika has long tried to depoliticize the question of debt, the power of Greece’s eurozone creditors — who control 60 percent of the debt — is ultimately political in nature and derived from democratic elections, which makes them symbolically vulnerable to assertions of the democratic sovereignty of the Greek government. Thus Syriza’s position is a manifestation of what Wolfgang Streeck calls “the crisis of democratic capitalism,” particularly the permanent contradiction between democracy and capital.

6. Shift the common sense

For many years the European left has been reactive in public discussions. It has either effaced its own positions by immersing itself in the logic of neoliberalism, or stressed its credentials as an “alternative” to the mainstream and praised itself with signifiers of marginality such as “radical left.”

The breakthrough of Syriza and Podemos has signalled a significant change in both regards.

One of the most decisive discursive maneuvers has been the decision to occupy the imaginary center that had become vacant with the collapse of the old social-democratic parties under the strain of their fierce attack on their own constituencies. This does not mean that Syriza has adopted the discourse of the political center, but rather that it has refashioned dominant concepts.

Despite its name, Syriza increasingly doesn’t present itself as a radical leftist party, but as a party of the popular, leftist “center” of Greek society — a part of the anti-austerity mainsteam. In turn, it describes those who have implemented austerity as the true radicals and extremists. While some leftists interpret this as a retreat from radicalism, we must understand that ideological and symbolic radicalism is worth much less than the achievement of mainstreaming a political line, which given the contradictions of the Greek state, is radical in practice.

Asked by a BBC journalist whether he denied the need for reforms in the Greek economy, Varoufakis avoided the standard leftist reply “we reject the structural reforms of the troika.” Instead, he reversed the meaning of reforms. Yes, Varoufakis said, Greece needs reforms on an unprecedented scale: effective taxation of the rich, harsh laws against corruption, and so on. “Greece has not been reforming, it’s been deforming over the last few years.”

7. Use state power to give social movements room to operate

The final point is the most significant, but also almost tangential to the topic of strategic lessons learned in the first weeks of the Syriza government. It concerns the role of social movements and the police.

Given the high rate of unemployment, the livelihood of many Greeks is extremely contingent and the population is one of the most “disorganized” in Europe. The daily order of wage labor and familiar habits have been destabilized by the crisis. This has both lead to a rise in illegal and irregular activities and economies, and to new forms of self-organization.

Moreover, these are not always clearly distinguishable, but are taking place in an indeterminate legal situation, where people take matters into their own hand without regard for or in direct antagonism to a state that has sold them out. Well-known examples are the campaigns of auto-reduction, where people refused to pay the electricity bills through which the government levied a direct tax imposed by the troika; the occupation and workers’ self-management of the factory; and the many solidarity health clinics.

Ultimately, a governing party cannot abolish the police, but at most attempt to transform it — as Syriza does, into a “people’s police.” The party’s proposal for police reform recognizes that as a governing party, it is no longer a party-movement outside the state. The police are no longer an external opponent of the party, but under its political remit.

Syriza’s proposal calls for the disbanding of the feared riot police, an immediate end to the use of hazardous chemical substances against the public, and “for the establishment of judicial police and an independent service to deal with the cases of police brutality as well as of a police ombudsman institution.” This curtailment of police power reflects Syriza’s well-grounded fear of fascist influence in the police ranks.

When people engage in forms of self-organization in order to survive — whether these activities are prohibited or not — the police tend to see illegality to be suppressed. Limiting police power constrains the police’s ability to crack down on such modes of behavior. Of course, we also must remember that widespread insecurity in Greece has also increased popular fear, and thus calls for order. Many have turned to Golden Dawn. Syriza must address legitimate safety concerns without augmenting the forces of reaction.

Under these circumstances, the question is not one of abolishing the police, but of rendering it less important as a solution to economic insecurity. Thus, when Syriza proposes the limitation of police power, it widens the space for self-organization — both of movements and everyday practices of survival.

In this context, the work of the Solidarity 4 All initiative, which has so far been the link between Syriza and the social movements, will remain important. For now, it appears that Syriza recognizes that it only holds state power and hence the legal prerogative over the police because of its social base, the popular vote, and the power of movements.

Breaking Neoliberalism’s Spell

The strength of Syriza’s negotiating position is largely contingent on creditors’ fear of Greek default and euro exit. But what happens if Germany and the ECB are willing to accept this cost, while the IMF, US, France, and the UK are not willing or able to stand up to Germany and the ECB?

To put it briefly, Syriza would find itself in an enormous dilemma, in which it would have to get the Greek population to accept one of two very bitter pills: continued austerity or euro exit. An anti-austerity U-turn would close the space opened by Syriza and make it simple managers of the crisis. A Greek exit would also close the current space of maneuver, and require a leap into a new one.

First, as Greece would be thrown into deep depression with the return of the drachma as its currency, Syriza would have to rely on the resilience of the Greek people. Second, Greece would need economic and in-kind support of oil, gas, and medicine from new allies such as Russia and China — support that would come at a significant geopolitical price — and from Venezuela and Ecuador.

Third, Syriza would have to go further than hacking the enemy’s discourse and the relatively mild Keynesian policies it is proposing at the moment, and start reconsidering the nationalization of key industries, utilities, and the banks — in the first instance, simply to keep them running.

Finally, in order to avoid the dangers of swiftly losing power to the Right, Syriza would have to be sure that a vast portion of the Greek population blamed Germany for the exit, rather than the party. This would allow a kind of “national” solidarity to cohere around Syriza, in a situation characterized by the risk of utter chaos and calls for authoritarian order — as well as the chance of a more generalized popular insurrection against Greek government as such.

My aim here has been to derive some tactical and strategic principles from the first weeks of the Syriza government. An implicit danger of this exercise is projecting a sort of hyper-rationalism onto the government, and neglecting the way in which misunderstandings, chance, and failed timing destabilizes any linear route from strategic analysis to action, and the ways in which ignorance and illusions limit such analysis in the first place. What can be learned from the preceding are strategic lessons of government, not lessons in the building of movements and class power, without which the Syriza government would be nothing.

This does not mean, however, that such lessons of government are merely lessons for future radical leaders of state. Antonio Gramsci once wrote that Machiavelli did not write The Prince for the actual princes — who knew the ways of power very well — but for the people. Machiavelli gave the many an insight into the esoteric games of the few, and thus a way to critique and intervene in them.

In this sense, these ideas are written for those who are tired of the old projections of wishful thinking, blind trust, or rigid principles, or of the blanket dismissal of parties in power. They are not simply lessons of power, but lessons that might help us relate critically to government, to understand where it sells us short and what its limitations are.

Political strategy is possible if one recognizes possibility and contingency in a situation. However, this strategic perspective easily misses the struggles within the domain of supposed “necessity,” i.e. in the reproduction of the everyday through waged and unwaged labor. It also misses the strategies that people and groups develop to deal with everyday situations, and the possibilities and capacities that emerge from such self-organization.

Syriza’s has only broken the spell of neoliberalism by accepting the nuclear threat of euro exit, by prioritizing the mandate to end austerity over the commitment to stay in the euro. But the implicit threat of exit is only convincing and non-suicidal to the extent that the Greek population can withstand the short-term disaster of autarky and a return to the drachma. This is not only a question of steadfastness in the face of material immiseration, but the popular capacity to self-organize and resist Golden Dawn’s Nazism and other authoritarian “solutions” to crisis.

Syriza must accept that democracy is neither reducible to the commitments of past politicians, nor to the party’s representation of voters. Democracy, if it is to mean anything, is nothing but the capacity and taste of the people for freedom.