Notes on Greece 6: The Challenge of the United Front

NOVEMBER 15, 2012: Note 6 of 6 – SYRIZA, as its name “Coalition of the Radical Left” implies, is an expression of the coalescence of anti-capitalist forces in Greece, a coalescence produced through the struggles of the first years of the 21st century as well as the resistance to austerity and crisis from 2007 on. It is not the only such expression. Earlier notes have also mentioned another such coalescence with a very similar name – ANTARSYA, “Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left”. The SYRIZA coalition has 12 components, ANTARSYA has nine.[1]

The deep crisis of Greek society, the collapse of support for the mainstream parties, and the sudden surge towards SYRIZA, have all combined to create an intense climate favouring unity against austerity. In the run-up to the June elections, without question the principal issue flowing from this, was the call from SYRIZA for an electoral united front with the KKE, a united front which was rejected out of hand by the KKE, leading to a steep drop in support for what had been the historic left party of the Greek working class.

But the much smaller electoral force, ANTARSYA, also rejected the call for an electoral united front. While this of course had nowhere near the impact of the actions of the KKE, in terms of the unfolding of the anti-austerity movement in the coming months and years, it deserves attention. If with the benefit of hindsight, it is very clear that the refusal of the KKE to link arms with SYRIZA in June 2012 was a lost opportunity for the anti-austerity forces throughout Greece, then surely the same is true, on a smaller scale, for the similar stance taken by ANTARSYA.

The lost opportunity of June 2012 is, of course, yesterday’s issue. But today and tomorrow, the need for a united front approach will be posed, both electorally and on the streets. In future elections, there are certain to be new alignments. Between elections, in the coming months and years, there will be huge challenges confronting the social movements in Greece, as the austerity policies intensify. What is posed on a weekly and daily basis, is the daunting task of building unified resistance to attacks on wages, cuts in services and the disappearance of jobs. Here, a premium will be on activists and local organizers, and both ANTARSYA and SYRIZA have been important sources for these movement resources. What, then, has divided ANTARSYA from SYRIZA?

First, the contours of this division have been quite different from those characterizing the divide between the KKE and SYRIZA. For the KKE, deep-rooted inertia and sectarianism were the over-riding issues. For ANTARSYA, by contrast, the key issue was programmatic. ANTARSYA saw it as essential to make visible its program for combatting the crisis, a program that in crucial respects differs from that of SYRIZA. Here are some of the key issues on which ANTARSYA campaigned during the May 2012 election:

  • Immediate termination of the loan agreement, of any memoranda and the related measures;
  • Non-recognition of the debt, debt cancellation and suspension of payments;
  • Break with the system and decoupling from the euro and the EU;
  • Nationalization of the banks and corporations without compensation under workers’ control (ANTARSYA 2012b).

Contrast that with the points, outlined by SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras, during the attempt to form a coalition government after the May 2012 election.

  • The immediate cancellation of all impending measures that will impoverish Greeks further, such as cuts to pensions and salaries.
  • The immediate cancellation of all impending measures that undermine fundamental workers’ rights, such as the abolition of collective labor agreements.
  • The immediate abolition of a law granting MPs immunity from prosecution, reform of the electoral law and a general overhaul of the political system.
  • An investigation into Greek banks, and the immediate publication of the audit performed on the Greek banking sector by BlackRock.
  • The setting up of an international auditing committee to investigate the causes of Greece’s public deficit, with a moratorium on all debt servicing until the findings of the audit are published (ekathimerini.com 2012).

There are of course differences between the two programs. Unquestionably the most visible difference, and the one which has been the focus of much of the debate, has been ANTARSYA’s call for a break with the euro, a call which SYRIZA does not make. But this difference does not justify a divide. It is after all, not a difference of political principle, but rather one of political analysis. The key issue in determining an orientation to SYRIZA is the fact that SYRIZA has become the political expression for mass anger against austerity.

Prominent economist Costas Lapavitsas is widely known for advocating a “progressive exit” from the Eurozone, particularly for economically peripheral countries such as Greece (Lapavitsas et al. 2010, 369–371). He strongly believes SYRIZA is making a mistake in not advocating such a course of action. However, he did not see this as a reason to stand aside from its call for unity during the elections. “[T]he pressing issue at the moment is to free the country from the stranglehold of debt and austerity. As long as SYRIZA is prepared to take action to achieve these aims, and the Greek people wish to give it the benefit of the doubt on the euro, its role can be positive. At the very least, it offers a chance for Greece to avoid a disaster that might truly lead to the rise of fascism” (Lapavitsas 2012).

It is also the case, that there is nothing inherently radical about calling for a break from the Eurozone. Prominent SYRIZA spokesperson, Michalis Spourdalakis, argues forcefully that for the KKE at least, there is something “extremely conservative” about its call for a break from the euro. The KKE’s call, he argues, builds illusions that a solution to the deep crises in Greek society can be found in institutional change far away in Brussels, while the truth is, regardless of any institutional changes, the only hope for Greek society lies in the strengthening of the mass movements (Spourdalakis 2012b; see also Spourdalakis 2012a; Baltas 2012).

We also need to take seriously the opinion of the Greek people themselves. An overwhelming majority of the Greek population – in some polls as many as 80 per cent – favours retention of the euro (Giles, Spiegel, and Hope 2012). There are legitimate fears inside Greece that a break with the euro would massively worsen the already catastrophic situation in the country. Perhaps these fear are an expression of conservatism on the part of the Greek population. But perhaps they also reflect a common sense appreciation of a real truth – that in a globalized world, there can be no national solution to the crisis, that any solution has to be in concert with the rest of Europe. Almost 90 years ago, Leon Trotsky made just this point.

The European continent in the present state of development of its productive forces is an economic unit – not a shut-in unit, of course, but one possessing profound internal ties – as was proved in the terrible catastrophe of the world war … Europe is not a geographical term; Europe is an economic term, something incomparably more concrete especially in the present post-war conditions – than the world market. Just as federation was long ago recognized as essential for the Balkan peninsula, so now the time has arrived for stating definitely and clearly that federation is essential for Balkanized Europe (Trotsky 1972, 342–343).

This is an important discussion, something to be developed in more detail at a later time. The central point of these notes has been to emphasize another issue, the challenge in Greece, and a challenge shared by social movements in every other country, that of finding our way to united fronts against austerity. This is not a new story. John Riddell (2011) has very helpfully reminded us that this was precisely the dominant issue facing the social movements 90 years ago, where debates about how to form united fronts were dominated progressive political debate.

In very difficult circumstances, the social movements in Greece have taken steps towards such a united front. Both SYRIZA and ANTARSYA – coalitions of very diverse forces – represent organizational expressions of the desire for unity. The same sentiment for unity was revealed sharply when the base of first PASOK and then the KKE moved en masse towards SYRIZA during the two elections of 2012. We have seen the case for unity in elections made electorally by the gesture towards the KKE and ANTARSYA by SYRIZA, and for unity in action by Panos Petrou of SYRIZA who indicated that it was SYRIZA, “together with forces from ANTARSYA” who gave “important organizational and political support” to the movement of the squares in 2011 (Petrou 2012). The call for unity in action also comes from ANTARSYA, which in its election material issued an appeal to “all of the collectives and movements struggling for the past two years against the terror of the memoranda, the Troika, and the euro-junta to communicate in solidarity and to cooperate before, during and after the elections. This appeal is directed to all forces that have bled in the strikes and clashes, that have filled the squares with life, that want to strengthen the rebellion of the labour movement” (ANTARSYA 2012b).

In the coming months and years, we will undoubtedly learn important lessons from our friends in Greece, about how to turn these sentiments for united action into reality.

Previous in the series
Notes on Greece 1: Economic Crisis
Notes on Greece 2: Political Upheaval
Notes on Greece 3: The KKE

Notes on Greece 4: SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA
Notes on Greece 5: Greece, France, and the limits of the Concept ‘Left Reformism’

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This note is one of six. The six notes have been published together as  “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)” Links, November 18.

End Notes

[1] For SYRIZA, in the order presented on its web site, these components are Renewing Communist and Ecological Left (AKOA), Anti-capitalist Political Group (APO), Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA), Democratic Social Movement (DIKKI), Active Citizens (Energoi Polites), Movement for the Unity in Action of the Left (KEDA), Communist Organization of Greece (KOE), Red (Kokkino), Eco-socialists of Greece, Rosa – Radical Left Group, The Radicals (Rizopastes), and Synaspismós (SYN). For ANTARSYA, again in the order presented on its web site, these components are Left Recomposition (ARAN), Left Anti-capitalist Group (ARAS), Revolutionary Communist Movement of Greece (EKKE), Communist Renewal, New Left Current (NAR), Youth Communist Liberation (NKA), Alternative Ecologists, OKDE-Spartakos, and Socialist Workers Party (SEK). (SYRIZA 2012; ANTARSYA 2012a)


References


ANTARSYA. 2012a. “Organizations Involved in ANTARSYA.”

———. 2012b. “Statement on the Parliamentary Elections to Be Held on May 6 in Greece.” International Viewpoint 447 (April).

Baltas, Aristides. 2012. “The Rise of Syriza: An Interview.” In The Question of Strategy: Socialist Register 2013, ed. Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, 120–136. Pontypool, Wales: The Merlin Press.

ekathimerini.com. 2012. “Tsipras Lays Out Five Points of Coalition Talks.” Kathimerini, May 8.

Giles, Chris, Peter Spiegel, and Kerin Hope. 2012. “Eurozone: If Greece Goes …” Financial Times, May 14, sec. News.

Lapavitsas, Costas. 2012. “Why Europe Needs Greece: Syriza’s Success Starts the First Major Battle Against Austerity. The Continent Should Will Them to Win.” The Guardian, May 12, sec. News.

Lapavitsas, Costas, Annina Kaltenbrunner, Duncan Lindo, J. Michell, Juan Pablo Painceira, Eugenia Pires, Jeff Powell, Alexis Stenfors, and Nuno Teles. 2010. “Eurozone Crisis: Beggar Thyself and Thy Neighbour.” Journal of Balkan & Near Eastern Studies 12 (4) (December): 321–373.

Petrou, Panos. 2012. “The Making of SYRIZA.” SocialistWorker.org, June 11.

Riddell, John. 2011. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Spourdalakis, Michalis. 2012a. “Left Strategy in the Greek Cauldron: Explaining Syriza’s Success.” In The Question of Strategy: Socialist Register 2013, ed. Leo Panitch, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, 98–119. Pontypool, Wales: The Merlin Press.

———. 2012b. “Left Strategy in the Greek Cauldron: Explaining Syriza’s Success”. Panel: The Crisis of the Eurozone and the European Socialist Parties presented at the Weighs Like a Nightmare. Ninth Annual Historical Materialism Conference 2012, November 11, London, U.K.

SYRIZA. 2012. “Components SYRIZA.”

Trotsky, Leon. 1972. “Is the Time Ripe for the Slogan: ‘The United States of Europe’? (A Discussion Article).” In The First Five Years of the Communist International, trans. John G. Wright, 2:341–346. New York: Monad Press.

Notes on Greece 5: Greece, France, and the limits of the Concept ‘Left Reformism’

NOVEMBER 13, 2012: Note 5 of 6 – There are, as Alex Callinicos outlines, New Lefts forming across Europe in countries other than Greece. How should we assess these New Lefts? Callinicos, in a short newspaper article attempted to survey the development of the left throughout Europe as a whole, putting the entire New Left of four countries – Germany, Greece, France and Holland – under one label. He asked: “What is the politics of this rising left? Over-simplifying a little, it is essentially some version or other of left reformism. It’s true that SYRIZA includes within its ranks an assortment of far-left groups, but the dominant force, SYNASPISMÓS, originates in the more accommodating and pro-European wing of the Greek Communist movement”. This left reformism, he argues, is “filling a space left by the rightward shift of mainstream social democracy.” Leaders of left reformism “are able to reach out to traditional social-democratic voters by articulating their anger in a familiar reformist language.” However, “ambiguity is inherent in any version of reformism, which seeks simultaneously to express workers’ resistance to capitalism and to contain it within the framework of the system” (Callinicos 2012a).

It is always difficult in a short newspaper article to convey all the nuances of a political position. But Callinicos is also the editor of a quarterly theoretical journal, and in a much longer analysis in that theoretical journal in the Summer of 2012 he developed exactly this position at more length, including direct quotations from the earlier, shorter newspaper article (Callinicos 2012b). For Callinicos (and others, as we shall see below), the starting point in an analysis of SYRIZA is categorizing it as one of several formations in Europe of “left reformism”. But adjectives such as “left reformist”, “accommodating” and “pro-European” are not helpful when it comes to understanding the political dynamics being unleashed by the new social facts taking shape on the European political landscape.

This can be shown through a brief, comparative analysis of the situations in Greece and France –one of the most important countries where New Left formations have been takng shape. Such an examination will show that there are in fact interesting and important parallels between the situation in France with that in Greece. But there are also important differences, which make over-generalization difficult and misleading.

Perhaps the most important parallel, has been the challenge posed, in both countries, by large breaks to the left from the traditional parties of social-democracy. The Front de gauche is an electoral coalition, originating in a left split, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from the Socialist Party in France. His grouping was joined, in 2009, by the French Communist Party. The 2012 campaign of the Front de gauche had a movement feel to it, marked as it was by enormous mass meetings. “Around 20,000 people turned up at Mélenchon’s meeting in Lille, 70,000 were present at a huge open air meeting in Toulouse, 100,000 were in Marseille and around 50,000 attended an indoor rally in Paris”, and it ended up achieving a vote of 11% in the April 2012 elections (Wolfreys 2012, 40).

François Sabado – a leading member of the Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste (NPA) – deploys the same label used by Callinicos, “left reformist”, to describe the Front de gauche. He does so as part of an analysis to try and situate the rise of the Front de gauche and the relative eclipse of other forces on the left, including his party, the NPA. He offers an interesting analysis to explain the ability of the Front de gauche to become the main expression of the radicalization in France. He suggests that the 2012 pre-election situation in France was “marked by social defeats, which encouraged the hope and the illusion that ‘what is blocked in the struggle can be unblocked by the election’” (Sabado 2012, author’s translation). He is undoubtedly referring to “the defeat inflicted on the impressive movement that developed in the autumn of 2010 against Sarkozy’s pension reforms, reflecting a displacement of hopes invested in struggle onto the promise that they may be realized by electoral means” (Wolfreys 2012, 41).

The struggles of 2009 and 2010 were in fact, massive. “In March 2009, over two million workers supported a general strike organized by the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) against President Sarkozy’s handling of the economic crisis. … This was followed in October 2010 by major stoppages and street demonstrations (including a week-long blockade at France’s twelve oil refineries and a three-week dockworker strike in Marseille) over Sarkozy’s privatization and austerity measures, which included plans to raise the minimum and full retirement ages to sixty-two and sixty-seven, respectively, a move the government claimed was vital to stem a soaring pension deficit” (Burnham 2011, 503–504). Millions participated in the 2010 “rolling strike” strategy of the French union leadership (Davies 2010). On October 12 and 19 2010, the CGT claimed that 3.5 million people took to the streets each day against the pension reforms. The Interior Ministry had lower figures, putting the demonstrations of October 12 at 1.23 million, and those of October 19 at 1.1 million (Erlanger 2010). But even these lower figures indicate a social movement of enormous proportions.

It is also true that these struggles did not, in fact, stop the pension reforms. Just weeks after the massive October protests, then president Nicolas Sarkozy signed the reforms into law, in this sense, defeating the movement. Sabado is suggesting that demoralization from the failure of these street battles turned peoples’ eyes towards the ballot box. In that situation, the left-reformist Front de gauche could do very well, while the more radical NPA, with its emphasis on extra-parliamentary action, would do more poorly.

Is this persuasive? In Greece, as earlier notes have outlined, there have been equally massive strikes and street protests. And, as in France, those struggles have not prevented the imposition of austerity measures. But the austerity measures imposed in Greece are far more serious than those in France. Sarkozy’s pension reform “increases the minimum pensionable retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension entitlement age to 67 from 65 for anyone who has not contributed to the system for 41 years. The measures will come into effect gradually from July next year, and be fully enacted by 2018” (Samuel 2010). But contrast this with the immiseration being imposed on the Greek workers through the various “memoranda”. The attacks on the living standards of the Greek population are qualitatively worse than those in France.

By the same logic, shouldn’t the Greek movements failure to stop these memoranda constitute a “social defeat”, a much more drastic social defeat than that experienced in France? Should we then see the rise of SYRIZA – like the rise of the Front de gauche – as a result of demoralization from the failure of street protests? In the case of SYRIZA, this seems entirely unpersuasive, given the scale of the break from social-democracy.

It also feels unsatisfactory as an explanation of dynamics in France – a search for an objective explanation for problems that are actually rooted in serious, subjective political errors. While the Front de gauche has been galvanizing tens of thousands, Sabado’s party, the NPA has entered a very serious internal crisis. Part of this is certainly rooted in the party’s inability to consistently challenge Islamophobia – a very big problem in a country where the extreme right is building a base on hard, anti-Islamic politics. In 2010, this erupted into a nasty controversy when Ilham Moussaid was chosen as an NPA candidate in her region. Moussaid is a hijab-wearing woman, and her candidacy sparked a storm of controversy, including a resolution put forward by a minority “that hijab wearers can’t be candidates for the party”. Moussaid ended up resigning from the party, along with several other members (Mullen 2010). This is an open door through which many internal problems can enter. But a probably bigger reason for the crisis in the NPA has been its decision to stand aloof from the Front de gauche. Jason Stanley argues that, even before the April 2012 elections, the NPA was “hemorrhaging members and struggling to stay afloat”. He roots this crisis in large part in the NPA decision to not participate in the Front de gauche, something he labels “sectarianism” (Stanley 2012).

Even if we do decide to call both SYRIZA and Front de gauche “left reformist,” it does not justify standing aside from the radicalizations they represent. Sabado uses the label “left reformist” to emphasize the ambiguities and contradictions inside the Front de gauche – and there are many such ambiguities and contradictions. The Front de gauche refuses to take a stand against nuclear power “because of the many ties linking the French Communist Party to the French nuclear industry” (Sabado 2012, author’s translation). Mélenchon himself, while very much opposed to U.S. imperialism, is more muted when it comes to French imperialism, reaffirming his position in a recent publication that “in the current situation, the nuclear deterrent remains the essential element in our defense strategy” (2012, author’s translation). Sabado emphasizes these ambiguities and contradictions, in order to justify his party – the NPA – standing apart from the Front de gauche electoral coalition. But labeling the Front de gauche “left reformist,” outlining its contradictions, and on that basis standing aside from its campaign is quite one-sided. Surely more important than the ambiguities of the Front de gauche and its “left reformism” is the social fact of it representing a new radicalization of tens of thousands? When the latter is seen as the key factor, then without question the task for groups like the NPA is to stand in solidarity, not stand aside. To refuse to engage with a new radicalization, whatever its limitations, will push formations like the NPA into political crisis – the bigger the radicalization, the bigger the crisis. If this is true for the challenge created in France by the rise of the Front de gauche, it is doubly true for the challenge created in Greece by the rise of SYRIZA.

There is a general point, relevant to this analysis, which can be gleaned from this short survey of France. In the tumultuous political situation which currently exists in Europe, the traditional architecture of mass politics is in flux, and in key countries – certainly in both Greece and France – this has resulted in important new “social facts” emerging, mass left political formations expressing a radicalization to the left of traditional social democracy. The key task is to engage with these mass processes, not to label them and use the resulting categorization as an excuse to stand aside. But we shouldn’t stretch the comparison between France and Greece too far. There are very big differences between the New Lefts of France and Greece, and of the political and economic terrain in the two countries. To conclude this section, some of these differences will be highlighted.

First, in their attitude to imperialism, the Front de Gauche and SYRIZA are quite different. Sabado shows clearly that the Front de gauche is ambiguous at best on the question of French imperialism. By contrast, one of the strengths of SYRIZA is its roots in the anti-imperialist movement. In a message from SYRIZA to anti-NATO protesters in the United States in May of 2012, this was made extremely clear.

Here in Greece, the struggle against NATO has always been important and the demand to exit the war machine, and shut down its military bases in Greece had always been central for the Greek left since the ’70s. More recently, we still remember that the foundations for the emergence of the radical left, SYRIZA, that today is on the rise, are back at the anti-war movement of 2003 against the invasion in Iraq. And today, the country that is most hardly hit by the crisis and austerity, maintains military presence to Afghanistan, it supported actively the war on Libya, it deploys its navy in Somalia and Lebanon. Greek governments, in their competition with the Turkish state about which power can act best as the ‘military bully’ of the area, had been spending billions of euros in a frenzy of constant armaments. And the military spending continues even now, at the time of the most severe austerity that threatens public schools and hospitals with collapse (Davanellos and Martalis 2012).

Second, the impact of elections in 2012 was completely different on the political landscape of the two countries. In Greece, there was a coalescing of support for the extreme right, including the fascists, but it was not the main story. The main story was clearly the emergence of SYRIZA. In France by contrast, the main story of the April 2012 election was precisely the third place finish of the far-right National Front, which won more than 18% of the vote in the first round, “a stunning result for the far right … a record for France’s Front National, beating the previous best in 2002 … Everyone had said it could not happen. The opinion polls suggested it would not. It did”. The Front de gauche did manage to receive just over 11% of the vote, but “the Front de gauche leadership had hoped for results above 15%, and above all, to finish in third place, ahead of Marine Le Pen” (Sabado 2012, author’s translation). This “caused deep disappointment” among its supporters because the result was “several percentage points lower than had been expected” (Willisher 2012). In short, while the elections in Greece crystallized the rise of a New Left, the elections in France led to widespread disappointment in the ranks of the New Left, a disappointment mixed with fear in the presence of a very dangerous emergence of a mass base for the racist far right.

Third, the economic terrain in the two countries is quite different. We saw in earlier notes the continuing decline in GDP in Greece, and the inexorable rise of unemployment to truly painful levels. In France, there was a decline of GDP for five quarters in 2008 and 2009, a decline not unlike that experienced in Greece, but in the years since, the economy has expanded, not contracted. That expansion has slowed considerably in 2012, it is true. But the difference between contraction and expansion is not trivial. Unemployment in France did spike, as a result of the recession, from 7.5% to 10%. But this is not significantly higher than the unemployment rates experienced through the economic expansion in the first years of the 21st century, and is certainly far removed from the catastrophic levels in Greece, outlined at the beginning of these notes (Trading Economics 2012a; Trading Economics 2012b).

It is instructive to extend the gaze beyond France. In the summer of 2012, unemployment in Germany, at just over 6%, was at levels lower than at any time this century. In Austria, unemployment was 4.3%; in Denmark, 4.5%; in the Netherlands, 6.3%; in Belgium, 7.2%; in Sweden, 7.8% (Trading Economics 2012c). The contrast between the economic situation in these countries, and that in Greece could not be more pronounced.

To this point in the aftershocks from the 2008-2009 recession, Europe has proceeded on two tracks. The weaker economies, largely in the south (Greece, Portugal, Spain, and to some extent Italy) have experienced very severe economic contraction, and – in Greece, and Spain – depression-era levels of unemployment. But the stronger countries, largely in the north, have returned to growth – shaky and uneven growth – but growth nonetheless. Now of course, this could change. Perhaps Greece’s present is France’s future. Perhaps. But the political perspectives of the present cannot be built upon the objective conditions of the future. An abstract category such as “left reformism” – when applied to New Lefts developing in different countries in quite different circumstances – can obscure more than it reveals.

A comparative analysis of the Europe’s New Lefts must be sensitive to these differences. Without question, the development of a New Left is far more advanced in Greece than in France and the rest of Europe. The Front de gauche of Mélenchon is a welcome development to the left of social democracy. But it contains within it nothing like the deep history of development through struggle experienced over years by SYRIZA. It is at a much earlier phase of development than the New Left in Greece. This is not surprising. The economic and social crisis in Greece is incomparably deeper than that in, for instance, France. The very depth of that crisis has accelerated the conditions which have produced a very rapid decomposition of old political parties, and a radicalization to the left. The French working class has engaged in many, very militant struggles. But no one could paint the compelling picture of workplaces and neighbourhoods becoming the “fortresses of resistance” outlined so dramatically by Antonis Davanellos in his sketch of the state of working class resistance in Greece.

The concrete is always more difficult than the abstract in political analysis. The abstract formula “left reformist” hides more than it reveals. The contexts in which the New Lefts are developing in these four countries are quite different, and each one of the emerging left formations has its own story. This is part of an international phenomenon, which includes formations as different as Die Linke in Germany and Québec solidaire in Quebec. To properly assess each, including SYRIZA, we are going to have to concretely study their roots and history. Without such an attempt, there is a danger of political analysis falling back on extremely generally-formulated abstractions which tell us little about the real content of a political current, and can in fact can become a barrier to developing a proper understanding. Most seriously, there can be a tendency to use the label “left reformist” as an excuse for standing aloof from an unfolding radicalization. Interestingly, this point has been made very well by Callinicos himself. In 2009, in a debate with, among others, François Sabado, he argued that the using the label “left reformist” for the New Lefts in Europe can be used to “accentuate the negative” and runs the risk of an analysis which “ignores the fundamental fact that, for the first time in decades, the decay of social democracy has produced a serious breakaway to the left” (Callinicos 2009).

Previous in the series
Notes on Greece 1: Economic Crisis
Notes on Greece 2: Political Upheaval
Notes on Greece 3: The KKE

Notes on Greece 4: SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA

Last in the series
Notes on Greece 6: The Challenge of the United Front

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This note is one of six. The six notes have been published together as  “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)” Links, November 18.

References


Burnham, Peter. 2011. “Towards a Political Theory of Crisis: Policy and Resistance Across Europe.” New Political Science 33 (4): 493–507.

Callinicos, Alex. 2009. “Revolutionary Paths: a Reply to Panos Garganas and François
Sabado.” International Socialism 122 (Spring) (March 31).

———. 2012a. “The Politics of the Rising European Left.” Socialist Worker (London), May 19, 2303 edition.

———. 2012b. “The Second Coming of the Radical Left.” International Socialism 135 (Summer) (June 28): 10–22.

Davanellos, Antonis, and Sotiris Martalis. 2012. “Message from SYRIZA to Chicago anti-NATO Protests.” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal (May 20).

Davies, Lizzy. 2010. “Nicolas Sarkozy Calls for Calm as French Pension Protests Gather Pace.” The Guardian, October 19.

Erlanger, Steven. 2010. “Amid Strikes, French Leader Vows Order.” The New York Times, October 20, sec. News.

Mullen, John. 2010. “Islamophobia and France’s NPA.” SocialistWorker.org, December 15.

Sabado, François. 2012. “Front De Gauche : Et Maintenant ?” Tout Est à Nous, June 2.

Samuel, Henry. 2010. “Nicolas Sarkozy Claims He Has ‘Saved’ French Pensions as Bill Becomes Law.” The Telegraph, November 10.

Stanley, Jason. 2012. “France: The NPA in Crisis.” Against the Current 26 (6) (February): 25–26.

Trading Economics. 2012a. “France GDP Annual Growth Rate.”

———. 2012b. “France Unemployment Rate.”

———. 2012c. “Unemployment Rates, List by Country.”

Willisher, Kim. 2012. “Marine Le Pen Scores Stunning Result in French Presidential Election.” Guardian.co.uk, April 22.

Wolfreys, Jim. 2012. “France After Sarkozy: Confronting the Politics of Despair.” International Socialism 135 (Summer) (June 28): 27–50.

Notes on Greece 4: SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA

NOVEMBER 7, 2012: Note 4 of 6 – The explosive changes in Greek economics and politics have introduced the entire world to SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA, the anti-capitalist coalition of which SYNASPISMÓS is the leading part. The roots of SYNASPISMÓS go back to the 1968 opposition to Russian imperialism in Czechoslovakia, the original dividing point in the old KKE.

At its core the opposition to Russian tanks was based on the marvellous, instinctive anti-authoritarianism of the 1960’s youth radicalization. This willingness to be influenced by a new generation is more important in categorizing SYNASPISMÓS than the label “eurocommunist”. Stathis Kouvélakis captures this clearly. The wing of communism from which SYRIZA emerged was “marked by eurocommunism” but was also “open, since the 1970s, to the new social movements. … It is a party which is at ease in the feminist movement, youth mobilizations, the anti-globalization, anti-racist and LGBT currents, all the while keeping an important orientation on the workers movement” (Marlière 2012, author’s translation). There is, in other words, a generational divide between the two historic wings of Greek communism. One study of the KKE concluded that, after the political developments of the 1990s, “the KKE has become a party of retired people with limited education and resources. SYNASPISMÓS has, instead, a far more dynamic social profile, reaching its peak among people in their thirties and forties, with a higher degree of education” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 682).

There is a tendency to see this in “class” terms – the KKE keeping its roots in the poor and the working class, SYNASPISMÓS (and by extension, SYRIZA), evolving away from the working class towards “urban bourgeois intellectuals” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 681). But we should be cautious before so easily pigeon-holing the class character of these parties. The same authors who define the base of SYNASPISMÓS as that of “urban bourgeois intellectuals” also use the term “young, professional, urban and affluent” to describe the party’s base. However, the authors argue that SYNASPISMÓS acquired this base by appealing “to the ‘new-left/post-materialist’ segments of Greek society. It is creatively combining all kind of anti-globalization, ecological, anti-nationalist, pro-immigrant messages” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 680).

Is it really meaningful to see the anti-globalization, ecological, anti-nationalist and pro-immigrant movements as expressions of young, professional, urban, affluent bourgeois intellectuals? Or are these issues the developing concerns around which are cohering the most advanced sections of the modern working class – a class which is increasingly educated, increasingly urban, and (from certain perspectives) increasingly professional?

Class needs to be seen, not as static layers of privilege within society in the manner of Max Weber, but rather as a relationship between exploited and exploiter in the manner of Karl Marx. The working class cannot meaningfully be restricted to those who have little education and who work in factories. The working class encompasses all those who have to sell their labour power to capital. An elementary point about the modern working class in advanced capitalist countries, is that increasingly – alongside blue-collar, factory workers – the working class (and the union movement) is more and more comprised of white-collar, office and service workers, many with quite a lot of education. Where would the class struggle in Greece (and Canada, and Britain, and the U.S.) be without teachers, civil servants and nurses? Perhaps the divide between the KKE and SYNASPISMÓS should not be seen as one of class (factory workers versus urban bourgeois intellectuals), but as one within the working class, between the old working class and the new working class? With the latter perspective, the evolution of SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA makes sense.

In any case, much of this discussion has been made moot by the rapid developments of 2012. The social composition of the electoral base of SYRIZA has been dramatically transformed. In the May 2012 election “SYRIZA came first among young voters, as well as among the voters ageing up to 55 years.” But the party also “prevailed in the big urban centers, where the economic and social crisis is particularly acute. It even managed to represent big parts of the popular strata in the poor neighbourhoods of Athens and other big cities, where traditionally its penetration had been low” (Golemis 2012). These tendencies accelerated in the June election, with the shift of a quarter of a million votes from the KKE to SYRIZA. The KKE, in other words, no longer has a monopoly on the left in terms of having a base among the poorest strata of the working class in Greece.

One of the component parts of SYRIZA is a group called the International Workers Left (DEA, from its Greek initials). Panos Petrou, a leading member of DEA, outlined the evolution of SYRIZA from 2004 until 2012. His history dovetails very nicely with the above analysis. Petrou argues that SYNASPISMÓS was in some difficulty in the early part of the 21st century.

A left-wing turn was needed, and it was expressed mostly through the involvement of SYN in the anti-globalization movement and the antiwar movement of 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. Regular joint actions between SYN and organizations of the radical and anti-capitalist left – DEA among them – took place in the anti-globalization and antiwar movements, and in the creation and activities of the Greek Social Forum. This kind of coordination represented an important break with the sectarian past of the traditionally fragmented Greek Left. The pressures from the movement itself – for unity of action and to express in the political field the dynamic of the Social Forum and the anti-globalization and antiwar movements – gave birth to SYRIZA.

The process that unfolded in the following years was, again, not straightforward. There was resistance to the left-turn in SYNASPISMÓS, the turn which had allowed for its formation in 2004. There were individuals and groupings which split to the right, more comfortable working with PASOK than with the new radicalization. But again and again, it was the pressure of the social movements which pushed SYRIZA to the left.

There was a mass student movement against the New Democracy government in 2006 and 2007. “Universities were occupied for months, thousands of students attended the general assemblies on their campuses, and tens of thousands of students marched in every city of Greece each week … It was during these months of struggle that SYRIZA re-emerged. In the student assemblies and in the university teachers’ union, activists from the radical left worked together to lead the struggle”.

This was followed in December 2008 by a youth revolt “after a 15-year-old student was killed by two police offers in Athens. SYRIZA was the only force in parliament that supported the youth revolt.” Finally, in 2011, in the wake of the occupation of Tahrir Square, harbinger of revolution in Egypt, and as part of the “Occupy” movement which swept the entire world, “the so-called ‘movement of the squares’ broke out – massive occupations of public plazas, like Syntagma Square in front of the parliament building in Athens, led largely by youth, in imitation of the indignados movement in Spain. SYRIZA activists threw themselves wholeheartedly into the movement. Together with forces from ANTARSYA, they provided important organizational and political support to the demonstrations and the assemblies held in the squares” (Petrou 2012).

One central story completes this picture. The big social movements tha shaped SYRIZA (and ANTARSYA) were underpinned by the extraordinary militancy of Greek workers. In 2010 and 2011, there were 17 general strikes in Greece, as workers mobilized against the harsh austerity measures (Garganas 2012). Here we can only give short accounts of a few of these – but in truth, each was a story in itself.

On May 5, 2010, “a general strike was called … and a hundred-thousand-strong demonstration resulted in rioters attacking the Greek parliament and burning banks in Athens … [T]he protest was the biggest, and most violent, seen in the country since the return to democracy in 1974. In February 2011, a twenty-four hour general strike effectively closed Athens airport and over thirty thousand protesters clashed with police outside the Central Bank of Greece” (Burnham 2011, 504).

In 2011, a 48-hour general strike on October 19 and 20 “confirmed that this cycle was entering a new phase. According to the most reliable estimates, around 300,000 turned out for the demonstrations in Athens and at least 200,000 in the rest of the country, out of a total population of 10.5 million. … Participants included workers from the public and private sectors, the unemployed, young people, small business owners and entrepreneurs, retired people. The scale, spread and diverse social composition of the demonstrations indicated the support of the majority of society. The two days of protest also included a range of spontaneous actions: occupations of public buildings, including government ministries; refusal to pay the new taxes; prolonged strikes by groups such as dustmen and hospital staff” (Kouvelakis 2011, 18).

These strikes and mass street protests have not stopped the austerity measures. But neither have Greek employers or the Greek state been able to impose a significant defeat upon the Greek workers’ movement. SYRIZA’s Antonis Davanellos, in a recent speech in Chicago, gave an extraordinary picture of the way in which this working class resistance has carved deep roots into civil society.

The backbone of the resistance has been the working class movement – a series of strikes, then a general strike, then a new cluster of walkouts, a new general strike, occupations and on and on … [T]his resistance has spread everywhere in Greek society. We say that we are protecting public space in Greece. That means that every public hospital has become a fortress of resistance – not only, by the way, involving the workers inside the hospital, the doctors and nurses, but the people who are in the hospital and their friends [and] relatives. Everyone together works to protect and save the hospital. Around the hospital is the neighbourhood, and the chains of solidarity are built between them. The same is true with public schools. The same is true about child care facilities, which are absolutely crucial for working-class families. But it’s not only that – it’s parks and other public facilities. This is the public space that we are protecting against privatization, against speculators and against austerity (Davanellos 2012).

This is an extraordinary picture of a class in mobilization. It is the immediate background to the rise of SYRIZA.

The preceding short history is a modest attempt at concretely locating SYRIZA within the history of the Greek working class, and the current Greek economic and social crisis. The most important thing here is not the label that is applied to this current, but an awareness that it has become the vehicle which is expressing, in mass politics, the current radicalization in Greek society.

Previous in the series
Notes on Greece 1: Economic Crisis
Notes on Greece 2: Political Upheaval
Notes on Greece 3: The KKE

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Notes on Greece 5: Greece, France, and the limits of the Concept ‘Left Reformism’

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This note is one of six. The six notes have been published together as  “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)” Links, November 18.

References


Burnham, Peter. 2011. “Towards a Political Theory of Crisis: Policy and Resistance Across Europe.” New Political Science 33 (4): 493–507.

Davanellos, Antonis. 2012. “From Crisis to Resistance in Greece.” SocialistWorker.org, July 5.

Garganas, Panos. 2012. “Greek Vote Proves Disaster for Ruling Class.” Socialist Worker (London), May 5, 2301 edition.

Golemis, Haris. 2012. “A Triumph of the Radical Left in Greece – A Message to Europe.” Transform! European Network for Alternative Thinking and Political Dialogue.

Kalyvas, Stathus N., and Niko Marantzidis. 2002. “Greek Communism, 1968-2001.” East European Politics & Societies 16 (3): 665–690.

Kouvelakis, Stathis. 2011. “The Greek Cauldron.” New Left Review II 72 (November-December): 17–32.

Marlière, Philippe. 2012. “« Syriza Est L’expression D’une Nouvelle Radicalité à Gauche » (Entretien Avec Stathis Kouvélakis).” Mediapart.

Petrou, Panos. 2012. “The Making of SYRIZA.” SocialistWorker.org, June 11.

Notes on Greece 3: the KKE

NOVEMBER 6, 2012: Note 3 of 6 – Throughout the entire modern period in Greece, the principal party to the left of PASOK has been the KKE. There is a real loyalty to the KKE among many in the Greek working class, and this loyalty has legitimate political roots. Party members faced severe repression during the years of the dictatorship between 1967 and 1974. Before the dictatorship, its cadre were forged in the terrible years of World War II and the civil war which followed it. This very small country, between 1940 and 1949, saw some 650,000 people lose their lives in war, resistance to fascism, and civil war (Hitchens 1983, 177). The KKE was at the centre of anti-fascist resistance. This has not been forgotten, and explains in part the intense loyalty towards the KKE displayed by thousands of Greek workers.

After the civil war, tens of thousands of KKE members were forced into exile. The communist movement then developed in two sharply different ways, shaped by being either outside or inside Greece itself. The leadership of the party was centred in exile – many in countries of the former Soviet bloc (Russia and Russian-occupied Eastern Europe) – and developed a peculiar kind of deep Stalinism, so deep it was to survive the collapse of that bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “In 1995, the KKE … suddenly rediscovered that Stalin was allegedly one of the greatest Marxist thinkers and began doing absurd things … like glorifying the 1930s purges” (Karadjis 2012).

Inside the country however, there was a quite different political evolution. The Communist Party of Greece of the Interior was formed in 1968, in opposition to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. The label ‘Interior’ “carried an important symbolic charge insofar as it implied that the KKE, often mockingly referred to as KKE Exoterikou (KKE Exterior) … was not really an independent party but a Soviet puppet” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 667–668). An uneasy history ensued, culminating in 1991 in a final split between on the one hand what is now the current KKE (essentially a continuation of KKE Exterior) and SYNASPISMÓS (essentially a continuation of KKE Interior) (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 676).

To see the relationship between this history and current developments is not straightforward, and frequently, old images from the past are not helpful. Typically, the KKE is seen as being a more orthodox group, and SYNASPISMÓS (and the KKE Interior which preceded it) as being more heterodox, from 1968 on part of the Eurocommunist current. Kalyvas and Marantzidis call the post 1991 KKE “hard-line” and the post 1991 SYNASPISMÓS “reformist” (2002, 676). Alex Callinicos says that SYNASPISMÓS “originates in the more accommodating and pro-European wing of the Greek communist movement” (Callinicos 2012a).

These labels, however, are of little use in charting the evolution of either the KKE or SYRIZA. Examine first the KKE. Terms like “orthodox” and “hard-line” usually imply more radical and left-wing. But the hard Stalinism of the KKE, outlined above, has served to disguise, behind left-sounding rhetoric, a deep political inertia and an adaptation to quite traditional nationalist politics.

The latter point is revealed openly in its publicly-accessible program, where the party on the one hand says it is rooted in “scientific socialism” but on the other that it is “a profoundly patriotic party” (KKE 2012). For the left in other member states of NATO and the European Union, the term “patriotic” is usually a label claimed by the right and not the left. This nationalism is based on its “view of Greece as a colony of Western imperialism rather than a mini-imperialist power in its own right” (Karadjis 2012).

The former – the deep political inertia – is revealed in its response to the electoral crisis of 2012. SYRIZA put out a call for a left government, calling on the anti-austerity parties to campaign together in the June elections. ANTARSYA, the other anti-capitalist coalition, had received 75,000 votes in the May election, and its cooperation with the SYRIZA list would have been important. Much more crucially, however, would have been winning the cooperation of the KKE with its half-million voters, and much bigger party apparatus (Davanellos 2012a). The issue of a government of the left poses its own issues, which very much require separate treatment at a later date. One in-depth analysis, deploying the older concept of a “workers’ government” was developed by Britain’s Richard Seymour (2012). John Riddell (2012) has helped to re-introduce this concept into the contemporary discussion. However, the point of an electoral united front is not measured solely by the prospect of office, but by the way in which an electoral united front could lead to an increase in confidence, determination and unity for the bitter struggles on the ground that are inevitable in the coming years.

Given the depth of the crisis, the collapse of PASOK, the emergence of an open fascist threat and the sudden rise in support for SYRIZA, it would seem elementary that the call for an electoral united front between the two big formations on the left, the KKE and SYRIZA, would be met with enthusiasm. In the May election, the Greek “masses handed their votes to SYRIZA, and secondarily to the KKE, with the mandate for them to take power, reject the memorandum, reject austerity [and] restore their livelihoods”. However, this prospect of a united front against the crisis foundered on the rocks of the “spectacular sectarianism of the KKE, which … point blank refused to join a united front with SYRIZA. More than that – criminally – the KKE … refused to even talk about it … [T]he KKE claims it will not work with SYRIZA who it denounces as social democrats who will inevitably sell out” (Karadjis 2012).

The KKE leadership might have refused to link arms with SYRIZA, but many supporters of the KKE went a different direction. Tens of thousands of workers abandoned the KKE and voted for SYRIZA in June 2012. The KKE ended up paying a very steep price for its sectarian position, losing half of its electoral base, and receiving the fewest votes it has ever received in a modern Greek election.

So clearly, one image from the past is not useful. It is not useful to see the KKE as being “extremely left”. The KKE is better seen as being extremely sectarian, a sectarianism shaped in its peculiar embrace of hard Stalinism, political baggage leading to a terrible, conservative inertia in the face of the most profound crisis in Greece since the Second World War.

Previous in the series
Notes on Greece 1: Economic Crisis
Notes on Greece 2: Political Upheaval

Next in the series

Notes on Greece 4: SYNASPISMÓS and SYRIZA


© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This note is one of six. The six notes have been published together as  “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)” Links, November 18.

References


Callinicos, Alex. 2012. “The Politics of the Rising European Left.” Socialist Worker (London), May 19, 2303 edition.

Davanellos, Antonis. 2012. “A New Stage of the Resistance in Greece.” SocialistWorker.org, May 23.

Hitchens, Christopher. 1983. “Eleni.” Grand Street 2 (4): 173–181.

Kalyvas, Stathus N., and Niko Marantzidis. 2002. “Greek Communism, 1968-2001.” East European Politics & Societies 16 (3): 665–690.

Karadjis, Michael. 2012. “Greece: SYRIZA, the Communist Party and the Desperate Need for a United Front.” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal (May 16).

KKE. 2012. “Programme of KKE”. Document. Communist Party of Greece.

Riddell, John. 2012. “What Would Lenin’s Comintern Have Made of SYRIZA?” Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September 3.

Seymour, Richard. 2012. “The Challenge of SYRIZA.” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal (July 12).

Notes on Greece 2: Political Upheaval

NOVEMBER 5, 2012: Note 2 of 6 – Greece’s deep economic crisis has led to a revolution in the traditional structures of mass politics. New Democracy (Tories) won elections in 2004 and 2007, and were in office as the crisis struck its first blows. October 4, 2009, they were swept out by a newly resurgent PASOK (social-democrats), as voters turned to the traditional party of the workers’ movement and the left in the face of the clear failure of conservative politics. But PASOK’s social democracy proved equally bankrupt. The only “solution” PASOK (and New Democracy) could come up with, was to agree to two so-called “bailouts” supervised by the “troika” – the European Central Bank (ECB), European Commission (EC) and International Monetary Fund (IMF – a €110 billion “bailout” in May 2010, and another €130 billion “bailout” agreed to in February 2012.

The word “bailouts” is put in quotation marks, because what in fact is being bailed out is not the Greek government, let alone the people of Greece, but rather financial institutions, particularly key European financial institutions, which stood to lose heavily should the Greek economy go under. So – while the second bailout agreement involved a “forgiveness” of 70% of the debt owed by the Greek government to certain key lenders, it came with a key condition that the Greek government’s first priority was to use the money advanced to keep servicing its still massive remaining debt. A European Commission report outlining the nature of the conditions wrote: “the government has expressed the intention of adopting legislation giving priority to the debt service vis-à-vis other cash outflows” (European Commission 2012, 45). The bailout money does not go into the pockets of Greek workers and the unemployed. The bailout money is “recycled” from the European Central Bank and the IMF in particular, back onto the balance-sheet of key financial institutions (Fontevecchia 2012).

And there were other conditions – the imposition of truly drastic austerity measures. Those austerity measures were codified in a series of “memorandums” associated with each of the bailouts. These memorandums make for shocking reading, mandating extraordinarily severe cuts in jobs, wages and services (European Commission et al. 2010; European Commission et al. 2012a; European Commission et al. 2012b). From May 2010 on, much of Greek politics has polarized around this one word: for or against the “memorandums”. The February 2012 memorandum agreement between the troika and the Greek government, called for:

  • a 22-percent cut on the standard minimum monthly wage;
  • for those under 25, a 32-percent reduction;
  • wage freezes on several categories of workers until the unemployment rate falls below 10 percent;
  • €3.2 billion in spending and pension cuts so that;
  • monthly pension payments above €1300 will be reduced by 12 percent;
  • supplementary pensions, paid out of workers’ own contributions, will be slashed by up to 30 percent;
  • reduction in pharmaceutical expenditure by at least €1,076 million;
  • reduction in overtime pay for doctors in hospitals by at least € 50 million;
  • an average reduction by 10 percent in the so-called ‘special wages’ of the public sector (Reuters 2012a; European Commission et al. 2012b).

Because New Democracy and PASOK were both equally implicated in this horrendous attack on the population, they have each paid a huge political price. Throughout the first elections of the 21st century (outlined in Chart 3), New Democracy and PASOK took turns winning elections, each normally polling around 3 million votes, New Democracy in 2004 almost reaching the 3.4 million mark. But in June 2012, when New Democracy managed to top the polls, it did so with just 1.8 million votes, a decline in support of more than 1.5 million from its 2004 peak.

For PASOK, the situation is even worse. In three of the four elections held between 2000 and 2009, it won just over 3 million votes. But having accepted responsibility for the austerity packages designed by European and international bureaucrats as part of the “rescue” of the Greek economy, PASOK saw its base evaporate. In May of 2012, it could not even reach the one million voter threshold. In June it just barely held on to three-quarters of a million voters. Between 2004 and 2012, more than two million voters had abandoned the traditional party of the trade unions and the left. The social-democratic pillar of mainstream politics has been eroded to an even greater extent than the conservative pillar.

The rise of SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left) is the other side of this picture. This is a political formation with roots in the Greek communist tradition. Its activists have been prominent in the big movements of the 21st century – anti-globalization, anti-war and (since 2007), anti-austerity. Inspired by the occupation of Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a worldwide rebellion against capitalism took shape through the various “Occupy” movements. Its Greek counterpart was “the movement of the squares,” and SYRIZA was a key part of that movement. SYRIZA combines, then, both an electoral presence and an activist presence in the mass movements, a distinct break from the passivity of traditional social-democracy.

Through the elections of 2009, SYRIZA’s vote was fairly modest, ranging from just over 200,000 to just over 350,000. This did not even mark SYRIZA as the most popular of the parties to the left of PASOK, being surpassed in every election by the votes of the KKE (the Greek Communist Party). But this changed dramatically in the election of May 6, 2012, when SYRIZA’s vote soared to just over one million. In the election of June 17, 2012, that total soared again to over 1.6 million, SYRIZA winning more than twice as many votes as PASOK, and trailing by only a few thousand the winning total of New Democracy. There has clearly been a pronounced shift to the left in Greece, with hundreds of thousands of voters moving from PASOK to SYRIZA.

But the crisis in Greece has not simply produced a move to the left. Chart 4 shows this very clearly. First, with each passing election fewer and fewer people have even bothered to vote. The voter turnout in June 2012 was fully 1.2 million below that of March 2004, this in a country where the electorate is just over 9 million. So while one million have turned left towards SYRIZA, an equal number have turned their backs on electoral politics altogether. This evidence of mass, political disengagement is extremely worrying. More worrying still has been the advance of the right. Just over a decade ago, a useful analysis of the Greek left could make the following claim. “It is interesting to note that as of 2002, no successful extreme-right party had emerged in Greece” (Kalyvas and Marantzidis 2002, 690). This is no longer the case. In the election of 2009, an openly neo-Nazi party, the so-called “Golden Dawn”, entered the electoral arena, winning just under 20,000 votes. But by May of 2012 that total soared to 440,000. When a Golden Dawn member physically attacked a left politician on television, many presumed that this would lead to a collapse in its vote. These hopes proved illusory, Golden Dawn keeping the bulk of its votes. In fact the truth is, Golden Dawn has built its base through violence – racist violence – feeding on and encouraging a situation where there have been literally “thousands of attacks against immigrants” (Marchetos 2012). It is also not the only new right-wing party in Greece. A proliferation of splinter-right parties has developed, some basing themselves on extreme Greek patriotism, others on a politics of scapegoating immigrants. The total vote for these splinter-right groups topped 1.2 million in May of 2012.

Finally, to complete the picture emerging from these six elections, Chart 5 maps the changing contours of politics to the left of social democracy. Traditionally, that left has been a terrain dominated by the KKE, the Communist Party of Greece. The chart shows that as recently as 2009, the KKE outpolled SYRIZA, winning more than half a million votes. But in the turmoil of 2012, almost half of those votes have disappeared, undoubtedly in their majority moving to support for SYRIZA. ANTARSYA, the Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left, is a third important component of the left-of-PASOK. In 2004, 2007 and 2009, ANTARSYA slowly increased its support from just under 20,000 to just under 25,000. In the election of May 2012, its vote tripled to 75,000. However, in the very polarized campaign of June 2012 it, like the KKE, saw many supporters move to SYRIZA, ANTARSYA’s result returning to the 20,000 vote level.

The big parties have lost millions of supporters because of their inability to deal with the crisis of Greek society. There has been an important coalescing of the left, and SYRIZA has emerged as a legitimate player on the terrain of mass politics. But there has also been the emergence of a hardened far-right threat, violently profiting from the stew of chauvinist and anti-immigrant politics churned up on the right of the political spectrum.

Previous in the series
Notes on Greece 1: Economic Crisis

Next in the series
Notes on Greece 3: the KKE

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This note is one of six. The six notes have been published together as  “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)” Links, November 18.

References


European Commission. 2012. The Second Economic Adjustment Programme for Greece. Occasional Paper. Brussels: European Commission – Directorate General Economic and Financial Affairs.

European Commission, ECB, IMF, and Hellenic Republic. 2010. Greece – Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies (MEFP). Brussels, Washington, Athens: European Commission, ECB, IMF, Hellenic Republic.

———. 2012a. Greece – Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies. Brussels, Washington, Athens: European Commission, ECB, IMF, Hellenic Republic.

———. 2012b. Greece—Memorandum of Understanding on Specific Economic Policy Conditionality. Brussels, Washington, Athens: European Commission, ECB, IMF, Hellenic Republic.

Fontevecchia, Agustino. 2012. “Greek Bailout Deal A Farce To Benefit Banks At The Expense Of Greece.” Forbes.com (February 21): 19.

Kalyvas, Stathus N., and Niko Marantzidis. 2002. “Greek Communism, 1968-2001.” East European Politics & Societies 16 (3): 665–690.

Marchetos, Spyros. 2012. “Golden Dawn and the Rise of Fascism.” Guardian.co.uk, June 19.

Ministry of the Interior. 2012a. Results of Parliamentary Elections in June 2012. Athens: Ministry of the Interior.

———. 2012b. Past Election Results. Athens: Ministry of the Interior.

Nohlen, Dieter, and Philip Stöver, eds. 2010. Elections in Europe : a Data Handbook. Baden-Baden, Germany: Nomos.

Reuters. 2012. “Greece Cuts Minimum Wage, Austerity Begins – Greek Cabinet Agrees to 22 Per Cent Cut in Minimum Wage.” The Times – Transcript, February 29.

Greece in the Eye of the Storm

NOVEMBER 5, 2012: Note 1 of 6 – An economic crisis of enormous proportions has erupted in a first world country in the Global North. The scale of the economic crisis in Greece has few modern equivalents, and is at the root of a massive social and political upheaval. Navigating that crisis poses difficult challenges for the social movements in Greece, and has important lessons for activists around the world. The notes that follow are an attempt to provide information that can assist those, unfamiliar with the situation in Greece, in navigating this situation.

Notes on Greece 1: Economic crisis

The economic crisis in Greece rivals that which broke out in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. There have been two “bailouts” of the Greek economy, orchestrated by key European and international institutions. Panos Garganos is editor of the Athens-based Workers Solidarity, and a leading member of The Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left (known by its Greek initials as ANTARSYA, a pun on the Greek word for “mutiny”). In March, 2012, Garganas wrote: “We are now in the middle of the second bailout and it is imposing worse conditions than in 2010 when the IMF first came to Greece. Wages have been cut by 22 percent, pensions by 15 to 25 percent, and there has been a whole wave of destruction in social services, in terms of access to hospitals, doctors and childcare. For working class families survival is a real, real struggle” (Garganas 2012a, 9).

The 21st century began with steady growth for the Greek economy, but with quite stunning speed, that economy went from growth to slump in 2007. It has stayed mired there ever since, something that Chart 1 clearly demonstrates [double-click to see in full]. Annual growth rates for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) were usually close to, or just under 3% from the first quarter of 2001 until the third quarter of 2007. On several occasions, GDP growth came in at above 6%; once, in the second quarter of 2006, at almost 7.5%. But in the last quarter of 2007, growth slumped to near zero, stayed just above zero for two more quarters, and then turned negative. GDP has shrunk every quarter since, except for a brief moment in the first quarter of 2010. From the fourth quarter of 2010 on, this slide has been exceptionally steep, often hitting 7%, and on one occasion coming close to 9%. By the first quarter of 2012, GDP sat at €40.6 billion, a level not seen since the first quarter of 2001. To put this another way – absolutely all of the growth experienced in the first years of this century in Greece has been wiped out by five years of slump.

This economic contraction has led to a jobs crisis, outlined in Chart 2. Just five years ago, in 2007, overall unemployment was at 8.5% and falling, dropping to 7.8% n 2008. But it has risen steadily since then to 16.2% in 2011 and a truly shattering 22.5% in the 2nd quarter of 2012. For young people, aged 15-24, it is far worse. From 22.9% in 2007, unemployment has risen to 51.15%. More than half of young people in Greece, who wish to have a job, can’t find one.

This unemployment is not restricted to the young – for whom high levels of unemployment have become a chronic condition in many countries. For those 45-54, unemployment is now at 17.2%; for those 35-44, 19.2%; and for those 25-34 it is almost at 30%. These figures are the statistical profile of social calamity. And it may get even worse. “Given the fact that the jobless rate is a lagging indicator of broader economic activity, unemployment may not have reached its peak yet,” said Platon Monokroussos, an economist at EFG Eurobank (Reuters 2012b).

A terribly revealing and sobering statistic, is the one to do with suicides. According to James Meadway, “Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe.” But in the wake of the economic crisis, “[s]uicides have increased by 40% in the last year” (Meadway 2012). The individual stories are heart-rending. Antonis Perris was a young man who, in 2012, had been unemployed for two years. “Perris wrote in an online forum late one night that he had run out of money to buy food and cursed those responsible for the economic crisis in Greece. ‘I have no solution in front of me,’ he typed. The next morning, Perris took the hand of his ailing 90-year-old mother. They climbed to the roof of their apartment building and leapt to their death” (Cha 2012).

Next in the series:
Notes on Greece 2: Political Upheaval

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This note is one of six. The six notes have been published together as  “Greece in the eye of the storm (the Greek left, SYRIZA and the limits of the concept of ‘left reformism’)” Links, November 18.

References

Cha, Ariana Eunjung. 2012. “‘Economic Suicides’ Shake Europe as Financial Crisis Takes Toll.” Associated Press, August 14.

ELSTAT. 2012a. Quarterly GDP – Expenditure Approach (Constant Prices) (1st Quarter 2000 – 1st Quarter 2012). Quarterly National Accounts. Athens: Hellenic Statistical Authority.

———. 2012b. Labour Force Survey: April 2012. Athens: Hellenic Statistical Authority.

Garganas, Panos. 2012. “Greece: The Struggle Radicalises.” International Socialism 134 (Spring) (March 27): 9–19.

Meadway, James. 2012. “Greek Austerity: The End of the Line.” The New Economics Foundation.

Reuters. 2012. “Record Jobless Rate Marks Greek Woes.” The Star (South Africa), July 13, p. 21.

Of Terror, the IMF, Keynes, and the Fiscal Multiplier

OCTOBER 17, 2012 – Thursday October 11, International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde said that both Greece and Spain should slow down their cuts to government spending. Well, not exactly. Her exact words were: “time is of the essence, meaning that instead of frontloading heavily, it is sometimes better, given circumstances and the fact that many countries at the same time go through that same set of policies with a view to reducing their deficit, it is sometimes better to have a bit more time” (Lagarde 2012). On its face, this makes little sense. But after wading through the doublespeak, and putting the entire quote in context, what it turns out she is saying is “slow down the cuts”. This is a complete reversal of two generations of neoliberal orthodoxy, and an implicit repudiation of the policies carried out by the IMF and its “sister” organizations in that period.

It is difficult to overstate the hypocrisy of Lagarde’s about face. The cuts against which she is now cautioning, were recommended in the first instance by … the IMF. It operates together with the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission (EC), as the so-called “troika”, which arrogantly entered the waters of economic crisis in Greece, and then Spain, saying that there would be help for these troubled economies, but at a price – absolutely severe and damaging cuts to services, pensions and jobs.

Terrifying

The resulting “adjustment” of economies in Greece and Spain has proven more catastrophic than the IMF had anticipated. At the same press conference where Lagarde argued it was time to slow the cuts, she had earlier said: “the unemployment rates that we see in advanced economies, in particular, and among young people, are terrifying and unacceptable” (Lagarde 2012).

Indeed. In Greece, overall unemployment in the first quarter of 2012 stood at 22.5%. By July the rate had risen to 23.6%. When that rate is “seasonally adjusted”, it rises to 25.1%. For young people aged 15-24 unemployment is even worse, in the first quarter standing at a horrendous 51.2% (ELSTAT 2012a; ELSTAT 2012b). In Spain, overall unemployment in August stood at 25.1%, for young people, hitting 52.9% (Eurostat 2012a; Eurostat 2012b). These terrible statistics can, unfortunately, be quite easily summarized: in these two countries, fully one-quarter of those who want to work are unemployed, half of all young people.

These statistics are, in fact, terrifying. But why has the IMF waited until 2012 to become terrified? It should have been terrified in Bolivia in the 1980s when IMF-sponsored “shock therapy” cuts smashed that country’s tin industry, driving thousands of miners back to the countryside to eke out a living in the coca fields (Kohl and Farthing 2006). It should have been terrified in Rwanda in the early 1990s, when IMF-sponsored structural adjustment helped to precipitate a catastrophic shredding of civil society, laying the basis for the genocide which riveted the world in 1994 (Chossudovsky 1998, 111–120). It should have been terrified in Indonesia in 1998, when structural adjustment led to a massive increase in poverty (Stiglitz 2003, 89–132).

The Washington Consensus 

Focus on the latter country for a moment. One of the key policy recommendations of the IMF and friends in Indonesia in 1998 was to eliminate government subsidies for food and fuel – measures which devastated the lives of the poorest in the country, and led to quite understandable riots (2003, 119). This is in line with the anti-state-intervention, pro-free-market ideology which underlies all IMF-backed structural adjustment programmes. This ideology is more than just prejudice – it is a complete, carefully worked out worldview. The IMF is associated – along with two other Washington D.C. based institutions, the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury Department – with what since 1989 has been known as the “Washington Consensus” (Williamson 1990). That consensus maintains that, in the face of economic crisis, governments should cut spending and open their doors to the wonders of the free market. Being faithful to this ideology does, in fact, mean targeting policies such as fuel and food subsidies as “market-distorting” which, if left in place, will hold an economy back.

Let’s examine the question of subsidies in just a bit more detail. In Rwanda, for instance, the question of subsidies was huge – but not subsidies to the poor. The market-distorting subsidies which were blocking development in Rwanda, were billions of dollars of subsidies given every year to Global North multinationals – a class of subsidies treated somewhat differently, however, than the food and fuel subsidies in Indonesia.

Emerging from colonialism with a very poor and very rural economy, Rwanda attempted to develop by acquiring foreign exchange for investment through a shift from subsistence farming to growing crops for export. This has proven to be a difficult road for many Global South countries, and Rwanda was no exception. In the Global North, governments spend tens of billions of dollars – particularly in the European Union and the United States – to subsidize key agricultural products. Cotton production in the United States, for instance, received $24 billion in subsidies from 2001 to 2011 (Kinnock 2011). Through a “complex system of loans and quotas” sugar production (and hence sugar export) from the United States receives billions of dollars of government support (Zumbrun).

These subsidies can’t be understood as support for the beleaguered, small farmer in either the U.S. or the E.U. The real beneficiary is not the poor farmer in rural Pennsylvania with 16 head of Angus, but rather the huge agribusinesses. Between 1995 and 2010, in the U.S. – according to the Environmental Working Group – 74% of all subsidies ($166 billion in total) were collected by just 10% of farmers, 62% of farmers received nothing (Mercola 2012). In 2009 in the E.U, “one of the biggest subsidies was $223 million, given to the French sugar conglomerate Tereos, one of whose subsidiaries produces rum on France’s Indian Ocean territory of Réunion. France’s Saint Louis Sucre also received multimillion-dollar subsidies and the British sugar giant Tate & Lyle received hundreds of thousands of dollars” (Walt 2010).

So countries like Rwanda get forced – by this system of subsidies to Global North agribusiness – into certain “niches” of agricultural commodities, such as coffee, not easily grown in the US or Europe. State support for agribusiness in the Global North squeezes them out of other potential export areas (Okonski). By the 1980s, Rwanda was dependent for 80% of its foreign exchange earnings on the export of coffee (Chossudovsky 1998, 114). But coffee is notoriously vulnerable to price volatility resulting from over-production. So when in 1989 the price of coffee collapsed, so did the Rwandan economy. This was reflected in ever growing levels of external debt. In 1985, the country’s total stock of external debt was just over 200% of its export earnings. By 1990, this had grown to 480% (The World Bank Group 2012).

Logically, a pro free-market institution like the IMF, implementing the “Washington consensus” should have said “free the market – eliminate subsidies to Global North agribusiness.”

There are other logics at work, however. The whole systemic issue of why Rwanda had been forced into the unsustainable niche of coffee-export driven growth was never addressed. The question of eliminating subsidies given by the rich countries to Global North agribusiness was never part of the discussion – that form of state intervention is tolerated by the IMF. The IMF insisted that the problems were internal to Rwanda, and in September 1990, it “imposed a structural adjustment program on Rwanda that devalued the Rwandan franc and further impoverished the already devastated Rwandan farmers and workers. The prices of fuel and consumer necessities were increased, and the austerity program imposed by the IMF led to a collapse in the education and health systems” (Robbins 1999, 271–272). The Rwandan state was massively downsized, its capacity to support health and education completely undermined, but the states of the Global North were left untouched, free to dole out billions to multinational agribusinesses.

In addition to impoverishing Rwanda’s people, this IMF imposed structural adjustment did nothing to restart the economy. Above we looked at figures for stock of external debt as a percent of export earnings. By 1991, this was 568%; by 1992, 821%; by 1993, 864%; and in 1994, it peaked at a horrendous 1,890% (The World Bank Group 2012). This didn’t terrify the IMF into rethinking its austerity prescriptions. Apparently, neither did the 1994 genocide, a genocide in large part triggered by these policies.

Finally – with this round of capitalist crisis coming home to roost in Europe – the IMF has succumbed to terror. The terror is not at the human devastation caused by its policies. If that were the case, the feeling of terror would have happened years earlier in Bolivia, Rwanda or Indonesia. The feeling of terror is happening now because the IMF is seeing what its policies are doing to countries in its own heartland, on the continent of Europe. It is looking down the road at the crisis spreading from the small economy of Greece to the medium-size economy of Spain, and then to a G-7 economy like Italy – and it has finally felt the terror and started to rethink its policies.

The Fiscal Multiplier

Lagarde’s public rethinking of the austerity agenda being imposed on Greece and Spain, was triggered by a perceptive question at a press conference, where a reporter asked her about “research that appeared in the World Economic Outlook about fiscal multipliers” (Lagarde 2012). The reporter had taken the time to read the 2012 edition of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, and get to Box 4.1 on pages 41 to 43. The contents of this box are explosive. Entitled “Are We Underestimating Short-Term Fiscal Multipliers?” it, like Lagarde’s gloss on it, requires a little translation.

The term “fiscal multiplier” is used to describe the effect of government spending on national income. “A multiplier greater than one shows that government spending on national income levels is deemed to have been enhanced” (Investopedia 2012). True to their Washington Consensus ideology, IMF staff reports, prepared to justify the structural adjustment being imposed on Greece and being proposed for Spain, based their recommendations on an assumed fiscal multiplier of 0.5 (International Monetary Fund 2012, 43). This is worth dwelling on. These IMF staff reports were assuming that $1 spent by the government would lead to just 50 cents growth in national income. In other words, government spending was a net drain on economic growth.

Now – if that were true – well then, cut everything, cut it all. If government spending of $1 leads to only 50 cents of income growth, then this is unbelievably wasteful and inefficient. If that is the case, then it would be better to spend nothing, and just give the $1 to the private sector, where that $1 will at least be a $1 increase in income, and not the measly 50 cents the IMF staff were predicting. With this as an assumption, you can see how eager IMF staff would be to slash spending in Greece, Spain and elsewhere.

Except – they know think they were wrong. After doing some more investigation, “results indicate that multipliers have actually been in the 0.9 to 1.7 range since the Great Recession … in today’s environment of substantial economic slack … multipliers may be well above 1” (International Monetary Fund 2012, 43). If that is the case – if the fiscal multiplier is above 1 – then cutting $1 in government spending will reduce national income by more than $1. In other words, cutting $1 billion in government spending will lead to a greater than $1 billion cut in national income, and will accelerate economic decline.

You can see why this is explosive. If this is in fact true, then policy should be for increasing government spending, not cutting it. The IMF document cites a series of studies – and it would benefit from studying them and not just citing them. According to one, written by Michael Woodford, when the fiscal multiplier is in excess of 1, then “welfare increases if government purchases expand to fill the output gap that arises from the inability to lower interest rates” (Woodford 2011, 1).

Lagarde is terrified (see above) because the unemployment levels in Greece and Spain are equivalent to those during the Great Depression. So read on … “Under circumstances like those of the Great Depression … government expenditure multiplier should be larger than one, and may be well above one. … Hence, a case can be made for quite an aggressive increase in government purchases under such circumstances, even taking account of the increased tax distortions required in order to finance the increase in government purchases” (Woodford 2011, 33).

From Keynes to the movements 

This is a very old idea. In the context of another period of rather slack demand – the 1930s Great Depression – John Maynard Keynes organized his most influential work around exactly this notion – the relationship between government expenditure (public investment), national consumption, and thus aggregate employment (Keynes 2010, chap. 10). The irony couldn’t be greater. In the 21st century, sitting in the long shadow of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, the vehemently anti-Keynesian Washington Consensus ideologues are slowly, cautiously, stumbling back towards – Keynes.

It won’t be enough. Keynes is a whole lot better than the free market evangelism which has governed public policy in the neoliberal era. But we know from the difficulties the world economy entered into during the Keynesian era itself in the 1960s and 1970s that Mr. Keynes himself did not have all the answers.

Real policy reform will require immersing ourselves in the social movements which crises often generate. The people of Indonesia were not content to be passive objects of IMF, Washington Consensus, experimentation. In 1998 they rose up in a revolution, overthrew the dictator Suharto, and began the long march toward a society based on democracy and social justice. The tin miners who lost their jobs through IMF-imposed shock therapy in Bolivia, went to the coca fields, combined their forces with the rural coca growers (including Evo Morales), formed a powerful social movement, and became part of the revolutionary processes which stopped privatization of water in Bolivia, overthrew successive neoliberal regimes, and led to the installation of Morales as president of the now plurinational state of Bolivia.

The IMF is terrified. On the ground, the Spanish people have a better emotion – outrage. The movement of the indiganados (the outraged) in Spain, the rise of Syriza in Greece – these are some of the elements of the new social movements shaping a response to the IMF as this article is being written.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

References

Chossudovsky, Michel. 1998. The Globalization of Poverty and the New World Order. 2nd ed. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

ELSTAT. 2012a. Employment-Unemployment. Labour Force (Quarterly) – Timeseries. Athens: Hellenic Statistical Authority.

———. 2012b. Labour Force Survey: April 2012. Athens: Hellenic Statistical Authority.

Eurostat. 2012a. “Harmonised Unemployment Rate by Sex, % (seasonally Adjusted).” Eurostat – Tables, Graphs and Maps Interface (TGM) Table.

———. 2012b. “Unemployment Statistics.” Statistics Explained.

International Monetary Fund. 2012. World Economic Outlook, October 2012 – Coping with High Debt and Sluggish Growth. World Economic and Financial Surveys.

Investopedia. 2012. “Fiscal Multiplier Definition.” Investopedia.

Keynes, John Maynard. 2010. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Orlando: Signalman Publishing.

Kinnock, Glenys. 2011. “America’s $24bn Subsidy Damages Developing World Cotton Farmers.” Poverty Matters.

Kohl, Benjamin H., and Linda C. Farthing. 2006. Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance. New York: Zed Books.

Lagarde, Christine. 2012. “Transcript of a Press Conference by International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and First Deputy Managing Director David Lipton.” International Monetary Fund.

Mercola, Dr. 2012. “Do You Have ANY Idea How Absurd U.S. Farm Subsidies Are?” Mercola.com.

Okonski, Kendra. “Who’s Really to Blame for Low Coffee Prices?” International Policy Network.

Robbins, Richard Howard. 1999. Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. 2003. Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

The World Bank Group. 2012. “World Development Indicators (WDI) & Global Development Finance (GDF).”

Walt, Vivienne. 2010. “E.U. Farm Subsidies: Agriculture Benefits Raise Eyebrows.” Time.com.

Williamson, John. 1990. “What Washington Means by Policy Reform.” In Latin American Adjustment How Much Has Happened?, ed. John Williamson. Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics.

Woodford, Michael. 2011. “Simple Analytics of the Government Expenditure Multiplier.” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics 3 (1) (January): 1–35. doi:10.1257/mac.3.1.1.

Zumbrun, Joshua. “Sugar’s Sweet Deal.” Forbes.com.

Bailout of Greece leaves workers in misery

Workers receiving minimum wage in Greece, are about to receive a 20% pay cut. Pensioners in Greece are about to see their monthly cheques sharply reduced. Public sector workers in Greece are bracing for 15,000 layoffs. These are just some of the consequences of the “bailout” of the Greek economy, organized by the so-called “troika” – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Ziotis 2012).

In return for drastic cuts in services and jobs, Greece will receive €130-billion ($175-billion) to prevent a default on looming payments required to service its government debt load of some €368-billion. But this bailout will not end the misery. The economy in Greece has contracted every year since 2008. This year the decline was supposed to slow to just three per cent. But a draft of the bailout agreement indicated that the rate of decline this year would be at least four per cent, and possibly higher. One statistic alone tells the extent of the problem – last year, 150,000 jobs were lost in small and medium businesses. This year, the figure is expected to be 240,000 (Reguly 2012).

The truth is, the bailout as designed is an extraordinarily clumsy and very damaging method by which to address the problems of the Greek economy. The European Union (EU), of which Greece is a member, has taken some of the steps towards creating a regional economy in their portion of the Eurasian continent. A key part of that process has been the creation, within the EU, of the Eurozone – a currency union whereby countries as different as Greece and Germany share the same currency, the Euro.

For a few years, there were some advantages for Greece Eurozone membership. It was, for instance, much cheaper to finance its public sector and corporate debt, with access to interest rates that were much lower than they would have been had the relatively small and weak Greek economy kept its own currency. But having the same currency as Germany also made the less productive Greek economy very vulnerable. It could not do what it did in the past – let its currency (formerly the drachma) devalue relative Germany’s (formerly the mark), and so keep the prices of its exports competitive. Locked into a currency union, the inevitable has happened –manufactured goods from Germany and the other strong economies in Europe pushing aside manufacturing based in Greece.

For a while, access to credit through membership in the Eurozone offset this problem. But over time, Greece’s public sector debt built up to 160% of GDP. To buy the bonds that finance that debt, bond markets began demanding higher and higher interest rates, triggering the current turmoil. The bailout will calm this problem for a while – but the structural problems behind the mess, are all intact.

To properly unify Europe, countries would have to share more than just their currency. Real union would involve the sharing of taxes and debt as well. This was the “federalist” solution of both the United States and Canada. In the former, the young post-revolutionary U.S. republic, guided by treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, did mint its own currency, as the Eurozone has done with the Euro. But it also “assumed the war debts of the ex-colonies” and “issued new national bonds backed by direct taxes.” Interestingly, this summary of early U.S. federalism comes from a recent issue of the influential magazine, The Economist, which poses the question whether Europe might, “in its chronic financial crisis, need such a ‘Hamiltonian moment.’” (The Economist 2012a).

But the rich countries of the continent, Germany in particular, want none of this. The stronger economies in Europe are, for the moment, doing quite well in the context of this crisis. In 2011, it is likely that the value of German exports “breached the 1-trillion euro mark for the first time ever.” According to Anton Börner, president of The Federation of German Wholesale, Foreign Trade and Services (BGA), two areas of the world fuelled this growth: other countries in Europe (exports to other EU members represented just under 60 percent of all German exports), and “emerging economies.” In terms of the latter, concern over the weaker European countries has pulled down the value of the Euro, making German exports cheaper on the world market (Graupner 2012). What is bad for Greece, in other words, has been for the moment, good for Germany.

It won’t be enough to muse about federalism in the abstract. Between where Europe is today, and a federalist future, there is the obstacle of centuries of history. Modern Europe was created through 500 years of colonial conquest of much of the rest of the world, and that colonialism generated deep pools of racism and chauvinism. That chauvinism has again and again turned inward: German against French, against Italian, against Greek – the most horrendous example being the orgy of racism and anti-semitism which erupted in the Second World War (Du Bois 1965). The transition of the EU towards a real federation would mean the transference of sovereignty from the nation-states to the EU, and the historically-rooted deep pools of chauvinism and nationalism are a barrier to such a development.

This can be seen in the débacle associated with opposition to Turkish accession to membership in the union. There has never been enthusiasm for reaching out to Turkey. In 2005, fully 52% of people in Europe were opposed to Turkey’s membership. Of the original members of the EU, only 32% were in favour (European Commission 2005). Two things have fuelled this opposition. In the 1990s, the issue was Greek chauvinism. Greece was an established EU member long before Turkey. Turkey is an historic rival of Greece in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece therefore put barrier after barrier in front of Turkey’s membership. “The EU’s policies towards Turkey have become in effect those of Greece,” complained Turkey’s ambassador to London in 1997 (dyer 1997).

In the 21st century, the issue has shifted to anti-Islamic racism. Fully 99.8% of the Turkish population is Islamic, and from 9/11 2001 on, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fuelled by wave after wave of anti-Islamic racism – Islamophobia – sweeping through North America and Europe. Turkish State Minister Mehmet Aydin raised this in 2007, saying that “there are politicians in Europe quoting extremist sources to justify their opposition to Turkey’s EU membership.” Among the politicians he targeted for using Islamophobia as a way of blocking Turkey’s membership, was the then French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy (Anatolia 2007).

The stagnant EU could certainly use Turkey right now. After China, Turkey is the fastest growing economy in the world, expanding at an average rate of 5.9% since 2002 (Staff 2012). That average would be much greater without the contraction of 4.8 percent during the 2009 recession. But in 2010 Turkey returned to growth, expanding at an 8.9% rate, in 2011 at a 6.6% rate. Turkey has a $1-trillion dollar economy along with a market of almost 80 million people (CIA 2012). It has a budget deficit that is less than 2% of GDP, and – in contrast to Greek’s figure of 160% – has “a public debt of only 40%” (The Economist 2012b). With these considerable economic strengths, had Turkey been allowed in, the entire EU, including Greece, would be considerably stronger as it dealt with the current crisis.

It is probably too late. In 2004, when Turkey embarked on the accession process for EU membership, two-thirds of the Turkish public supported membership. By 2007, this had fallen by almost half, to just 35% (Boland 2007). Another survey put support for the EU at 73% in 2004, but only 38% in 2010 (Bilefsky 2011). The events of 2011 and 2012 will solidify this trend. The crisis in Europe makes accession to membership in the European Union much less attractive. According to the founder of a conservative business group, “Today, the E.U. has absolutely no influence over Turkey, and most Turks are asking themselves, ‘Why should we be part of such a mess?’” This disillusion with Europe is coinciding with the beginnings of turn towards other states in the region. In 2004, just 12.5% of Turkish trade went to the Middle East. By 2010, the figure had increased to 20% (Bilefsky 2011). The Arab Spring could very well accelerate this shift.

Europe is being held back by its history. Until it comes to terms with that history – and the chauvinism and racism engendered by it – progress towards solving the problems in Greece and the other vulnerable economies, will be slow. This is the mess of a Europe designed by capitalists and technocrats. Only a politics of solidarity and resistance can begin the process of building an alternative.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

References

Anatolia. 2007. “Turkish Minister Warns About ‘Islamophobia’, ‘Turcophobia’, in Europe.” BBC Monitoring European. London: BBC. http://0-search.proquest.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/docview/459354212/135A211F568216E6535/5?accountid=8408.

Bilefsky, Dan. 2011. “For Turkey, Lure of European Union Is Fast Fading.” The New York Times, December 4, sec. World / Europe. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/05/world/europe/for-turkey-lure-of-european-union-is-fast-fading.html.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. 1965. The World and Africa: An Inquiry into the Part Which Africa Has Played in World History. New York: International Publishers Co.

Boland, Vincent. 2007. “The Feeling Is Mutual: Why Turks Are Growing Disillusioned with Europe.” Financial Times, January 4.

CIA. 2012. “Turkey.” The World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html.

dyer, Gwynne. 1997. “Denying Turkey Membership in the EU Is Foolish.” Waterloo Region Record, December 27.

European Commission. 2005. Eurobarometer 63.

Graupner, Hardy. 2012. “German Exports Reach Trillion-euro Threshold | Business | DW.DE | 10.01.2012.” Deutsche Welle. http://www.dw-world.com/dw/article/0,,15656113,00.html.

Reguly, Eric. 2012. “Despite Second Bailout, Greece Is Still a Time Bomb.” The Globe and Mail, February 24. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/commentary/eric-reguly/despite-second-bailout-greece-is-still-a-time-bomb/article2349487/.

Staff. 2012. “Turkey to Retain Its Low Credit Ratings | OANDA Forex Blog.” http://forexblog.oanda.com/20120224/turkey-to-retain-its-low-credit-ratings/.

The Economist. 2012a. “1789 and All That; Charlemagne.” The Economist, February 11.

———. 2012b. “Turkey’s Political In-fighting: Erdogan at Bay.” The Economist, February 25. http://www.economist.com/node/21548261.

Ziotis, Christos. 2012. “Greece Draft Cuts Minimum Wage 20%.” Bloomberg, February 8. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-08/greece-to-pledge-20-cut-in-minimum-wage-pension-cut-draft-accord-shows.html.

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‘Progressive’ Europe’s Reactionary Stew

The bailout of the debt-ridden Greek government seems finally to be complete. The European Union (EU) – most centrally the French and German treasuries – along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will provide €110-billion ($150-billion) in emergency loans. The price for these loans will be high. Along with steep tax increases and cuts in spending, the loans are conditional on a public sector wage freeze being extended through to 2014.[1] This is in reality a wage cut, as there will be drastic changes to the so-called “bonuses” – holiday pay that has become an essential part of the income package of low-paid public sector workers. The anger at these cuts is everywhere in Greek society. Giorgos Papadapoulos is a 28-year-old policeman who normally confronts demonstrators. But in March he put aside his riot shield and joined the mass protests which have become a regular part of life in Greece. “It’s a different feeling for me,” he told journalists while he was on the demonstration. “But this is important. It hurts me and my family.”[2] However, the crisis in Greece has revealed not just a shift to the left in Europe. It has also brought to the surface a seamy reactionary underside to politics in the EU portion of the Eurasian landmass.

The April 29 front page of the mass circulation German daily Bild screamed out “The Greeks want even more billions from us!”[3] The echoes of a half-forgotten German nationalism gave shivers to those with an historic memory. One who has such a memory – Greece’s deputy prime minister Theodoros Pangalos – reminded Greek voters of the horrors of World War II. “They [the Germans] took away the gold that was in the Bank of Greece,” he said. “They took away Greek money, and they never gave it back.”[4] It was a thinly-disguised attempt to divert attention from a crisis over which his party (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement or PASOK) has helped create. These kinds of reactionary nationalisms were supposed to have been superseded by the progressive cosmopolitanism of the EU.

That many have clung to a hope that the EU contains within it the seeds of a progressive capitalism, is not in itself news. Antonio Negri, co-author of Empire, supported a call for a “yes” vote on the European Constitution in 2004-2005. His rationale was explained very well by Salvatore Cannavò, then deputy editor of Liberazione, the daily paper of Italy’s Rifondazionie Comunista.

Empire, for Negri, is the new globalized, capitalistic society. He thinks of Europe as being a “brake on the ideology of economic unilateralism which is capitalist, conservative and reactionary. So Europe can become a counterweight against US unilateralism.”[5]

Another with faith in the EU was Christopher Hitchens, who describes himself as “one of the few on the Left to advocate enlargement of the European Union and to identify it with the progressive element in politics.”[6] But really, Hitchens needn’t describe himself as being so alone. In their hope that the EU represents a “nicer” capitalism than that in the United States, the very radical Negri and the ex-left gadfly Hitchens are actually trailing behind the very mainstream “social liberal” politics of very traditional European Social Democratic parties, still by far the principal force in the workers’ movement and the left in Europe. Hitchens’ and Negri’s pro-EU stances place them within the hegemonic project of European capitalism, mediated – as is so often the case – by European social democracy.

This hope for a progressive EU has been sorely tested by the most recent slump in the capitalist economy – the so-called “Great Recession” of 2008-9 – the trigger for the debt problems in Greece and elsewhere. November 2009, 57 per cent of the 53 per cent who participated in a referendum in Switzerland, voted to ban the building of minarets in that country. This reactionary trend is not restricted to Switzerland. In April we learned that the home affairs committee of the Brussels federal parliament in Belgium voted unanimously to ban Muslim women from veiling their face in public. “Support for the ban … transcended party lines, ranging from the Greens to the far right.” Similar restrictions are being contemplated elsewhere in Europe, including in France and the Netherlands. That this reflected a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism is revealed by the fact that “only four modest sized or small minarets exist in Switzerland,”[7] and that in Belgium “very few women wear the full veil, and there has been little public debate about the need to ban it.”[8]

It needs little analysis to see what is at work here. The deep crisis of 2008 and 2009 triggered huge government-spending programs across the continent. That spending worked to stem the crisis, but left governments saddled with unsustainable debts. Every government is now preparing to address this debt crisis by slashing government spending. The anti-Arab racism is a deeply reactionary, very old-fashioned and very predictable way for ruling elites to try and “change the channel” and make working people and the poor look at scapegoats, rather than at the deep attacks on social services and public sector workers that are around the corner throughout the continent. The anti-Greek nationalism in Germany – which threatens to derail a bailout sorely needed by German as well as Greek capital – reflects this politics of scapegoating getting out of the hands of German capital, and opening the door to populist far-right forces, an increasingly sombre menace on the fringes of the European political landscape.

This shift right is not a big step for politics in the EU. The EU could present itself as a force for progress, given the barbaric history of European civilization. A collection of nations – whose continent had, in a century and a half, witnessed the bloodiest wars ever seen in human history – had found a way to unite and partially reduce their divisions. Holders of an EU passport could travel easily from one country to the next – and more importantly work in any country of the Union. The emergence of a common currency for some of the EU states seemed to indicate an even greater reduction in tensions in a continent comprised of historic rivals.

But this progressive surface appearance masked another aspect of the barbarism that has been European civilization. Its roots are not just in the 150 years of intra-European rivalry which resulted in the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II. Those roots are even more in the 500 years of colonial conquest of the Global South, which resulted in the depopulation of whole sections of Latin America and the Caribbean, the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the long humiliation and plunder of three of the four most populated regions in the world – China, the Indian sub-continent, and the Indonesian archipelago. If the creation of the EU muted intra-European rivalries, it did not lessen European pressure on the Global South. If anything, it led to an intensification of European imperialism abroad. European corporations, from Latin America to Africa to Asia, have been as much a part of the story of imperialism in the late 20th and early 21st century as has been the much more recognizable hand of the United States. In fact, an argument could be made that the very reluctant decision to embark on the process of European integration was spurred not so much by a desire to create a progressive Europe, but rather by the recognition that another round of wars between the European states would make all of Europe incapable of participating with the United States in the ongoing plunder of the great riches in the Global South. It was either all-in or not at all – and the EU was the result.

In other words, there has always been a reactionary side to the EU project. Internal migration for holders of EU passports was wonderful for the workers of Europe. But for those outside the EU, what it meant was “Fortress Europe” – a wall of anti-immigrant rules and regulations from Italy to Spain to Germany. And while it was one thing to push forward with a unity project so long as each country in the project was in its majority white and Christian – when the project faced up to its next task, expanding to include the largely Islamic country of Turkey – a sudden reluctance showed its hand, a reluctance which could only with difficulty conceal its xenophobia and racism.

There is another aspect to the imperialist roots of the project of European Union – the unequal relations between states inside the Union. Doug Saunders, writing in The Globe and Mail, is going too far when he calls Greece, Portugal and Spain “economic colonies” of Germany. But he is highlighting something important about the unequal structure which is the EU. There is an inner core of dominant countries – on the continent, Germany and France in particular – and an outer layer of countries which has a very unequal relationship with that core.

Germany is the world’s second-largest exporter, ahead of the United States and exceeded only by China, and its largest markets are its European neighbours. These countries are net importers … These importing countries have more money flowing out of their borders than they have coming in – for Greece, an amount equivalent to a tenth of the entire economy – and Germany has a surplus, with piles of it stacking up. Money cannot sit still, and nature abhors a vacuum, so German banks disposed of those heaps of surplus export-payment cash by lending it to companies, especially property developers, in those same countries at low interest rates. And they lent it to their governments, too, to fill their need for missing cash, which would in turn be spent on more German goods and services.[9]

This is the toxic brew which is now bubbling over as the EU finalizes details on its bailout of the debt in Greece. The fact, outlined by Saunders above, that much of this debt is held by German banks, means that there is every reason for German capitalism to support such a bailout – but the terms that are being demanded are very severe, and it is Greek workers who are being asked to pay the price.

These conditions also run counter to the lessons learned so painfully in 2007 and 2008. The biggest lesson of the Great Recession was that it is neo-liberal folly to cut government spending when economies are shrinking. Such cuts make economic decline even worse. In fact what is needed is an increase in government spending, so that government demand can compensate for declining private sector demand. But if Germany has returned to economic growth and can now contemplate cuts to government spending, Greece has not. It is estimated that the Greek economy – after contracting through all of 2009 – will shrink by a further 4% in 2010 and another 2% in 2011.[10] The cuts being demanded by the EU and the IMF will make a bad situation worse in the coming weeks and months.

There is hope in the situation – the evolving resistance emerging in Greece. One poll indicated that “more than half of Greeks say they will take to the streets if the government agrees to new austerity measures.”[11] The growing mass movement and opening to the left underway in Greece, is extremely encouraging. It is with that movement that hopes ultimately lie for the emergence of a really progressive Europe.

But we should temper these hopes with a sober assessment of the reality of the situation. Social Democracy – and the union bureaucracies on which it stands – is deeply implicated in the construction of the structures which are today being used to orchestrate an attack, across the continent, on social services and the working class. Social Democracy remains the leading force in the workers’ movement, and we can have no illusions in its capacity to lead a serious fightback. In Greece the movement has necessarily broken in part with PASOK, as it is a PASOK-led government which is implementing the attacks. But in Greece as throughout Europe, social democracy is only a reflection of the problem. The material foundation of social democracy is comprised of the union bureaucracies entrenched in the workers’ movements in Europe and throughout the Global North. Ultimately the task facing the workers’ movement and the left is not just a political break from social democracy, but organizational independence from these union bureaucracies.

Winning that independence will be bound up with creating a counter-hegemonic project whose horizons are not just the internal politics of Europe, but the fact of Europe’s implication in the imperialism which oppresses the majority of the world’s population. Our counter-hegemonic project, in other words, cannot simply focus on economic issues. A counter-hegemonic project in Europe – as in North America – has to simultaneously involve a break from chauvinism and racism.

Such a recognition has practical implications. Greece’s small role in Europe’s noxious imperialism has been a series of chauvinistic rows over Macedonia and Cyprus, and its irresponsible and long-running feud with neighbouring Turkey. This has translated into an inflated military budget, keeping “Greek military spending well above that of other EU members, reaching €14-billion, or 6 percent of GDP, in 2007 and 2009.”[12] In other words, fully half of the deficit problem – which stands at between 13 and 14 percent of GDP – is caused by inflated spending on war preparation. Breaking from chauvinism and militarism opens the door to a simple demand which can be a modest, but necessary part of the counter-hegemonic project – cut spending on war, not spending on welfare.

© 2010 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Eric Reguly (Rome), “Greece swallows tough medicine in bailout,” The Globe and Mail. May 3, 2010, p. B1. www.theglobeandmail.com. Accessed May 3, 2010.
[2] Nicole Itano (Athens), “Why the Greeks are protesting,” www.globalpost.com. March 11, 2010. Accessed May 3, 2010.
[3] Tony Paterson (Berlin), “As size of Greek bailout soars, supply of German sympathy runs short,” Independent – London. Apr. 30, 2010, p. 16. eLibrary. Accessed May 2, 2010.
[4] Cited in Timothy Garton Ash, “The agonies of the eurozone reflect a far more significant hidden deficit,” The Guardian. Feb. 25, 2010, p. 31. www.guardian.co.uk. Accessed May 2, 1020.
[5] Salvatore Cannavò, “Toni Negri in favour of free-market constitution,” International Viewpoint 377, April 2006. www.internationalviewpoint.org. Accessed May 2, 2010.
[6] Christopher Hitchens, “What now for the European Dream?” Australian, Apr. 28, 2010, p. 8. eLibrary. Accessed May 2, 2010.
[7] Charles Bremner, “Swiss back right-wing minaret ban [Eire Region],” Times of London. Nov. 30, 2009, p. 3. elibrary. Accessed May 2, 2010.
[8] Ian Traynor, “Belgium to introduce first European ban on burqa and niqab,” The Guardian, April 1, 2010, p. 21. eLibrary. Accessed May 2, 2010.
[9] Doug Saunders (London), “Life in the German empire,” The Globe and Mail, May 1, 2010, p. A23. www.theglobeandmail.com. Accessed May 2, 2010.
[10] Global Economics Research, “Greece GDP Growth Rate,” TradingEconomics. Accessed May 3, 2010. “Greek Stocks Decline Amid Recession Concerns,” www.Capital.gr, May 3, 2010.
[11] Jason Subler, “Greek austerity measures will work: deputy PM,” Reuters, May 1, 2010. www.reuters.com. Accessed May 3, 2010.
[12] Eric Reguly and Brian Milner, “The bigger fear behind Greece: contagion,” The Globe and Mail, May 1, 2010, p. B7. www.theglobeandmail.com. Accessed May 2, 2010.