'The battle for Greece has begun'

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Cédric Durand, Razmig Keucheyan and Aurélie Trouvé comment on the recent political success of Syriza and ask what lessons the Left in France and Europe can take from it.

For a long time, political debates in Europe have only been a matter of fighting over small nuances of policy. Social democrats, conservatives, liberals and greens have complemented and combined with each other at various different levels. They all come together in a Europe of the extreme centre: the guarantor of fundamental freedoms for capital and the subordination of social and wage policies to the free reign of competition.

But that period is coming to an end. Syriza’s triumph means a return to outright political-geographical confrontations. As against the European institutions’ pro-austerity consensus, the new Greek government’s mandate is to revolutionise the state’s priorities: now financial discipline will come second to urgent social needs; the dignity and sovereignty of a people cannot be wiped out. So now only one question matters: how will Syriza keep its promises?

The struggle now underway looks a bit like David facing up to Goliath, one-on-one. The Greek economy is miniscule, compared to the continent as a whole, and it has been devastated by years of austerity. Politically speaking, its government is isolated on the European stage. While eleventh-hour friends from the social-democratic parties hurried to congratulate Tsipras, they did so with the goal of suffocating the radicalism that he embodies.

Above all, the architecture of the economic and monetary union and the logic of the debt put the new government at the mercy of all sorts of blackmail. In the capitals of Europe and at the European Commission and the ECB, enemies and false friends of Syriza are using the carrot and stick approach to try to mollify the intruder and drive a wedge in his ranks.  The kind of compromise that they are sketching out would be a bit like this: extend the maturities on the Greek debt such as to relieve the immediate burden on the country, in exchange for structural reforms – which means, privatisations, the liberalisation of the economy, and increased tax receipts.

So while there is room for Syriza to agree with them on this last issue – insofar as rich Greeks are habitual tax-evaders – on the other points these proposals are incompatible with its programme. And what about staggering the maturities on a debt that Greece finds simply unbearable? The plan is to keep the country in a perpetual state of submission to its creditors. That is unacceptable for a government that was elected precisely for the purpose of winning back the country’s dignity. Liberalising the economy even further? Well, that’s unthinkable for a party that is committed to re-establishing the pre-crisis minimum wage level as well as the regulations on collective bargaining, re-hiring laid-off state employees, and putting an end to privatisations.

Alexis Tsipras does have some advantages on which he can draw in the coming confrontation. The first is the intellectual bankruptcy of the Troika (ECB, IMF and EU). He has come to the head of a country bled dry by austerity because neoliberal policies in Greece and Europe have failed utterly from the European populations’ point of view. Faced with the onset of deflation – the absolute economic nightmare– the continent is looking for an alternative: the only solution is to cancel debts and kickstart public spending, and it is Syriza that is offering that.

The second advantage is a political one. In deciding to ally with a small party of the sovereigntyist Right rather than with one of the parties of the centre Left, Tsipras has come to the head of a government that is ready to stand up to the European institutions. Moreover, since one victory leads to another, opponents of austerity have also been strengthened in other countries. Podemos in Spain is preparing for power, and the realignments of the ‘left of the Left’ in France have also taken clearer form during this period of support for Syriza.

The final advantage is an economic one. The bloodletting imposed on Greece has led to a human disaster and the massacring of its productive capacities – that we know already. But Greece now has more freedom to do without its creditors. The country has a primary surplus (its budget would be balanced, if it were not for the debt payments) and it also has a stable balance of trade. This is no small advantage in the coming tug of war. If the negations fail, or even if Greece is kicked out of the euro, that would be a lot less painful for the Greeks than it would have been two years ago.

The battle for Greece is an object lesson for the radical Left in France. Faced with the decomposition of neoliberal forces in this country [France], it is the Front National that’s currently ahead in the race to provide an alternative. In Greece itself the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis posed a challenge while the Front National’s brother party LAOS lost all credibility by participating in government together with New Democracy and PASOK. Syriza’s success shows that it is not inevitable that xenophobic and retrograde ideas will monopolise the anger out there in society.

Of course, the arrangement of the political terrain is the product of each country’s individual history and we cannot proclaim the arrival of a French Syriza. But even so, the best means of supporting the Greek people is to prepare for the coming battle for France. From the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste to the frondeurs [left-wing opposition within the ruling Parti Socialiste], the Greens and Nouvelle Donne [a PS split whose name means ‘New Deal’] those who claim to offer a political and social alternative must prepare to get on the march. The current ‘wait-and-see’ approach of the forces to the Left of social-liberalism is simply sterile. The task of the day is to elaborate a radical and realist political project together with the social movements: one that can aspire to be the majority.

By Cédric Durand, Razmig Keucheyan and Aurélie Trouvé.

Translated by David Broder.

This piece was originally published in Libération, 2 February. 

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