The Path Not Taken

Alexis Tsipras claimed there was no realistic alternative to austerity for Greece. He was wrong.

Anti-austerity art in Athens. Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP

The “Programme of Social and National Rescue for Greece” was written in Athens in the early spring. That was a time of great concern for those who truly wanted social and economic change in Greece, as opposed to those who merely talked about it.

The Syriza government had already signed the notorious agreement of February 20, which led to its eventual defeat. The agreement aimed at securing a fresh loan for Greece, while promising to keep a balanced budget and make “reforms.” It secured absolutely no benefits for the country and, worst of all, left the government without a ready pool of liquidity to draw on. Greece would henceforth rely exclusively on the largesse of Mario Draghi’s European Central Bank (ECB).

This constituted a clear and present threat to any prospect of radical social change. Many in the parliamentary group of Syriza were alert to it, and therefore refused to sanction the agreement.

Draghi was not slow to act. Gradually both the banks and the public sector of Greece went dry, thus reducing dramatically the state’s room for maneuver. The Syriza government was for months engaged in a breathless race to secure liquidity to pay for public sector salaries, pensions and other obligations, while the ECB tightened the screws steadily and ruthlessly. Eventually, Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, was forced to confront the reality of the promises he had made to the Greek people before the historic January 25 election that brought Syriza to power.

Tsipras had vowed that he would negotiate “hard” to get rid of the bailout agreements, but without taking the country out of the European Monetary Union (EMU). Simple logic dictated that for Greece to sustain itself during the negotiations and perhaps to succeed in casting aside the bailouts, it would have to have regular access to liquidity.

Unfortunately, Draghi and the ECB were not going to oblige. The choice for the country after the February 20 agreement was stark: either generate liquidity independently, which of course implied abandoning the EMU and reverting to the national currency, or surrender abjectly to its lenders. Tsipras could try all he liked, but he simply could not fulfill his electoral promises.

The tragedy was that this awful dilemma was neither clear to most Syriza voters, nor to its members of parliament and ministers. It was possibly not clear even to Tsipras himself. The bulk of Syriza continued to labor under the illusion that “Europe” would somehow see sense, a compromise would be reached, and some agreement would be implemented that would not be as disastrous as the two previous Greek bailouts. Needless to say, during the period that followed the February 20 agreement, all thoughts of implementing social radicalism and reasserting national dignity dissipated in the breathless search for a compromise, any compromise.

This was the context in which the “Programme of Social and National Rescue” was written. The aim was to provide a coherent and clear argument — a series of steps — explaining how Greece could adopt an anti-bailout strategy, rather than submit to the dictates of the lenders.

The foundation was provided by my earlier joint work with Heiner Flassbeck; Verso had published that work as a book (Against the Troika) a mere day before Syriza’s January 25 victory. In that book we argued that there is an “impossible triad” in the EMU: a member state cannot have debt write off, lifting of austerity, and continued membership in the EMU. A radical government, such as that of Syriza, should opt for the first two, if it had the interests of both society and country uppermost in its mind.

The program thus put forth an integrated set of measures that constituted an alternative policy: writing off debt, rejecting balanced budgets, nationalizing banks, redistributing income and wealth through tax reform, raising the minimum wage, restoring labor regulation, boosting public investment, and redesigning the relationship between the private and the public sector. These measures would be impossible to take within the rigid confines of the eurozone. A radical government would have to consider reintroducing a national currency if it wished to implement them.

What had not been done in earlier work was show how the transition to a national currency could take place. It is, of course, far from easy to work out the actions needed to both reintroduce a new currency and also deal with the ensuing turbulence and beginning to implement the broader economic and social transformation of the country.

With this is mind, the program outlines twenty-nine steps that chart a coherent way out of the disastrous monetary union for Greece. It is no more than a roadmap, though one that is based on ample empirical and theoretical research.

No one is more aware than I am of the deficiencies and limitations of the analysis in the program. For one thing, a great deal has changed in Greece and Europe since it was written. For another, there is a need for more detailed empirical elaboration of several of its components.

Equally, however, no one is more aware of the pressure-cooker conditions under which the analysis was undertaken in Athens and of the lack of resources. Above all, no one is more aware of the desperate effort to spur a badly needed public debate in Greece.

Alas, the attempt proved futile and in the end it was impossible even to make the plan public. There are many reasons for that, but the political class of Greece — extending from left to right — must take much of the blame.

Given the complete absence of debate, Tsipras was able to claim that no alternative program existed that could offer a realistic way out of his terrible dilemma. This was always disingenuous on his part, but it served his political purposes brilliantly.

And so, in a few tumultuous weeks in July, Tsipras took the proud “no” of the Greek people in the referendum on whether to accept a new bailout, and turned it into a “yes.” The man who was going to change the face of Europe proceeded to sign a new bailout that included harsh terms and neocolonial restrictions on national sovereignty. The firebrand had turned into a kitten.

Even worse, though, was that in last month’s general election, Syriza emerged victorious. Popular Unity, the new political front that included the group from Syriza that had refused to accept the new bailout, failed even to get into parliament.

The defeat of Popular Unity was again due to many factors, but there is little doubt that it paid the price for not presenting boldly an alternative program that included exit from the EMU. Voters, confronted with the lack of a concrete alternative and plied with bromides by those who should have been offering concrete arguments, abstained in huge numbers, keeping Popular Unity out of parliament. The Left carried the burden of yet another crass political mistake.

The “Programme of Social and National Rescue” was eventually made public after the September 20 election. It was, first and foremost, an act of setting the historical record straight. But there was also a real political purpose to putting it in the public eye, even belatedly.

After many years in effective hypnosis, the European left has begun to wake up to the disaster of the EMU, and to the impossibility of radical policy within the confines of the euro. Recently there has even been an initiative to have a European “Plan B” involving some left-wing political figures from France, Italy, Germany, and Greece. It should be noted that these Greek politicians never supported Greek exit from the EMU when it mattered.

The awakening of the European left is certainly welcome, provided that the lessons of Syriza’s failure, as well as of the conservative hardening of both the EMU and the EU, are put to good use. What is required in Europe at present is more national work on exiting the EMU — French, Spanish, Italian, and, dare I say it, German.

Only after producing a body of left-wing approaches that reflect each country’s traditions and specificities will there be a proper foundation for the European left to develop a transnational approach that would free Europe from the shackles of a failed monetary union and set it on a path favoring labor against capital.

The national is the real basis for the international, as has always been the case in the history of capitalism. Without plans developed at the national level, all attempts at developing an international plan lack foundations and are little more than political spin.

There is no doubt in my mind that when the components of the European left come to do the required work at the national level, they will find in the program an indispensable aid, despite its many deficiencies. That is its real value and its contribution to the unfolding debate on the future of Europe and the role of the Left.