In Greece, ten million people change ‘European project’ forever
The Greek elections could change everything, writes Luke Cooper
Perhaps it was inevitable that attention would focus on François Hollande’s defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy, in what is undoubtedly a major blow to Europe’s political right. After all, the fall of Sarkozy potentially undermines the Franco-German consensus at the heart of the EU project, and leaves German Chancellor Angela Merkel more isolated than before. But it is Greece – a country that has been in recession for nearly five years and whose people have suffered austerity on a level unimaginable in other Western states – where parliamentary elections may prove to be a watershed moment for “Europe”.
That’s not Europe as in the geographical land mass, but the “project of Europe” as it was conceived in the Treaty of Rome to work towards “ever greater union” to “eliminate the barriers that divide Europe”. In Greece the central contradiction of this historical project now lies exposed. In a nutshell, this can be summarised in two questions: what if one of the “barriers that divide Europe” is the ‘winners and losers’ logic of the market, and what if the misery of some states lies directly in the fact that others are profiting from that logic?
A new dawn in Greek politics
The results of the Greek parliamentary election speak for themselves, with a dramatic collapse in support for the traditional ruling political elite. The conservative New Democracy party won 18.9 per cent of the vote – down from 33.5 per cent at the last election; Pasok, the closest thing Greece has to social democracy, won just 13.2 per cent of the vote – down from 43.9 per cent.
Since the overthrow of the military junta in 1973-74 these parties dominated Greek politics. Whatever happens in the months and years ahead, their unchallenged supremacy has momentarily been broken, opening up a chance for a radical realignment of politics. A classic polarisation between the right and left has now taken hold, with new parties formed in the cauldron of discontent emerging, while those who have for years stood on the fringes of the nation’s politics now find a hearing for their ideas amongst millions of people.
The big winners are the parties of the anti-austerity left. Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left – which unites relatively moderate eurocommunists with more radical left wing forces – made a dramatic breakthrough, forcing Pasok into third place, and winning 16.4 per cent of the vote, compared to the less that 5 per cent it won back in 2009. KKE, the Greek Communist Party – whose distinctive brand of Stalinism has traditionally combined a relatively minimal set of demands on Greece’s rulers with the style and rhetoric of ultra-left ultimatums – won 8.5 per cent of the vote, a less than 1 per cent increase on 2009. The Democratic Left, a newly formed party that came out of Synaspismós (the largest component of Syriza) and was later joined by a split from Pasok, took 6.1 per cent of the vote. And on the far right, Independent Greece, an anti-EU conservative party took 10.6 per cent of the vote, and the neo-Nazi, hard line fascistic Golden Dawn won 7 per cent of the vote – an astonishing increase on the 0.3 per cent it won in the last elections.
Question of Euro exit now posed
There is no shortage of historical parallels, where the economic logic of debt bondage amid a global slump in output has driven a social crisis resulting in a political polarisation. It is predictable – given that so much of the ideological justification for the European Union lies in the fallout of the inter-war crisis of the last century – that Germany, 1933 has cast its dark shadow over the Greek events. Then as now, external financial obligations (“war reparations”) put unsustainable demands on an entire people, and the noble ideals of liberal internationalism enshrined at the time in the League of Nations ran up against the harsher realities of how capital distributes wealth unequally across the international system. It is perhaps telling that it is city market bloggers who appear most taken by the trauma of this historical parallel.
In response to the vote, the Greek stock market fell by 6.5 per cent – its biggest daily loss in five years – fearing that political paralysis or anti-austerity parties would now prevail. And the bond markets have now largely priced in a Greek exit, leaving the country unable to borrow privately and entirely dependent on EU bailout funds.
Under the Greek constitution the party that wins the largest share of votes automatically gains another 50 seats – a breathtakingly undemocratic measure designed to avoid the political instability of coalition rule. But even with this boost for the New Democracy, the total number of seats in parliament it has with Pasok remains two less than the 151 needed for an overall majority. With Syriza ruling out participating in a government of “national salvation”, attention then turned to whether the Democratic Left will support such a coalition. But their leader has called for a broad coalition of the centre-left parliamentary parties, i.e. one that excluded the New Democracy. But, even if Syriza agreed to participate, they would not have a workable parliamentary majority because of the electoral rule that gives an additional 50 seats to the party that has the largest share of the popular vote. With no party likely to be able to be able to meet the 151-seat threshold new elections may well be called in a months time.
The Greek political elite will ask the same question again in the hope that the possibility of an exit from the European Union is sufficient to scare the electorate into giving the “right answer” this time and grant the pro-austerity parties a workable parliamentary majority.
The run on the Athens stock market indicates that most big global investors are now working on the assumption that Greece will be forced to leave the European Union.
The ironies of history
Such is the extent to which the financial crisis of 2008 has de-stabilised the old assumptions of capitalist politics, that the once impossible suddenly appears highly probable, the Maastricht Treaty actually contained no mechanism for leaving the Eurozone and remaining within the European Union. The simple reason is that its architects believed the ideological assumptions underpinning the “globalisation” years; that ever-greater unity of liberal states would bring peace and prosperity to Europe and the world. Even if some contested these “new realities”, it didn’t really matter, because history was on the side of “Europe”.
The people of Greece exist between resistance and tragedy – and a tragedy on a historic level. But like all tragedies the course of the Eurozone crisis has no shortage of irony. It is after all Germany that has imposed a shocking level of austerity on the Greek people; a 22 per cent cut in the minimum wage; a target of 150,000 public sector job losses; 15,000 public sector workers placed on immediate “labour reserve” with wage cuts of 40 per cent and notice they would be fired within a year; 50 billion euros of privatisations; health service cuts of over 1 billion euros; 300 million in pension cuts; and the list goes on, and on. Four years of austerity has led to successive contractions in Greek GDP, i.e. a long-term and deep recession, which in turn has undermined Greece’s ability to pay. In 2011 unemployment had risen to 15 per cent, but stands at 50 per cent amongst young people. It is running a vast trade deficit and the next round of cuts will further cripple its domestic economy.
That’s why the old adage that those “who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” strikes a chord for any reader of the Greek events; for Germany more than any other state should understand the consequences of austerity on this scale. But Merkel is adamant, after the election she made clear that in her opinion “the most important thing is that the programs we agreed with Greece will be continued”. As far as the EU rulers are concerned, no matter that the electorate is rejecting austerity, they are determined to enforce it.
Neoliberalism still ascendant
Compare this austerity to the actions another hegemonic state, the United States, took in 1948 to prop up war-ravaged Europe: the Marshall Plan. The parallel is informative, because it emerged directly out of the desire to halt the march of communism by creating an economic shield around the capitalist states of Western Europe. For us it poses the question of whether capitalism has lost its ability to reform itself given that now, in our times, there appears to be an absence of a credible threat to the market system. If our age is marked by what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism” – the “widespread belief that there is no alternative to capitalism” – then elites no longer “fear socialism” and so there is no compulsion to introduce reforms that attempt to “humanise” the market system.
Indeed, one of the remarkable things about Greece has been the preparedness of its political elite to undertake the austerity programmes in order to remain in the “European project”. Partly this expresses a political and ideological rationale. Entry into “Europe” was fundamental to the assumptions of post-1974 Greece. Konstantinos Karamanlis, the founder of modern Greece, saw entry into the common market as fundamental part of its transition to a modern and “civilised” liberal nation and successfully resided over their entry in 1981.
But partly also in Greece, like so many other states on the Eurozone periphery, a wealthy and technocratic elite have grown rich from the Eurozone project. And they as much as other big international investors stand to profit from the protection of the Greek financial sector and the dramatic “re-structuring” of its domestic economy that imposes the costs of the crisis on to its working majority. But while this nexus of economic interests groups is undoubtedly powerful, it will be the political decisions of a small layer of individuals that might prove decisive as to whether Greece will be able to remain in the European Union.
One of the challenges for those of us that want to actually go beyond capitalism and use the social crisis to rebuild faith in the socialist alternative is how we relate to situations like Greece where a broad based rejection of the logical outcome of the project of capitalist Europe is juxtaposed to a lack of belief in a credible alternative. Most opinion polls in Greece for instance still show that a majority favour remaining in the European Union but do not want to accept the costs that have become attached to it. Although Greece was not featured in a recent global surveyon attitudes to capitalism, in Spain = which is experiencing a similar economic contraction – some 42 per cent believed “a fundamental alternative to free market capitalism was needed” – one of the highest proportions. In Greece, the biggest gain of the current electoral crisis has been Syriza, whose alternative strategy does not fundamentally reject a “capitalist answer” to the crisis and has an ambiguous position in EU membership. The much more radical alliance of the left, Antarsya, won 1.4 per cent of the vote – a dramatic increase in its previous results – but still not anything like as credible a vote.
The current crisis may be destabilising many of the old assumptions, but instilling belief in an alternative remains elusive for the radical left. In Greece the scope for compromise with the European Union that would be acceptable to Syriza exists. But to achieve it would require fundamentally uprooting the neoliberal assumptions that remain dominant within “the project of Europe”. For a start it would require completely transforming the financial and banking system into public enterprises, allowing the state to take a far wider presence within the economy per se, and, in turn, create mayhem on the global stock markets as the increased presence of the state would “squeeze out” opportunities for capital. The comparison with the conditions that surrounded the Marshall Plan in 1948 is indeed telling, because the scope for a social compromise between labour and capital existed then given the growth opportunities for capital within the war-ravaged economies of the West. But as David Harvey argues in his Brief History of Neoliberalism, it is one thing to give workers an increased share of wealth as the economy is undergoing an overall expansion, but to do it in conditions of stagnation or decline is quite another. And thus while politics undoubtedly plays a role in the unfolding events that can’t be reduced to the economic, there are nonetheless structural exigencies in contemporary capitalism that make austerity a “rational” choice.
Overcoming capitalist realism
Greece remains a special case within Europe given that it has felt austerity on a scale that no other European state has yet experienced. But the great fear is whether it is only a matter of time that other countries witness similar convulsions under the whip hand of austerity. In its own way it gives a peculiar twist, to Marx and Engels’ famous formula from Communist Manifesto that capitalism “creates a world after its own image”. The question is whether the image of Greece spreads ineluctably across Europe – either in the form of the semi-globalisation of austerity economics to Spain, Italy, et al, or if an exit from the Euro encourages others to follow suit. That’s why economically the European Union could well withstand a total Greek default and exit, but its political costs will be enormous. Even though the Union will continue with participants prepared to accept the economics of austerity, it will no longer represent an open, globalised project of liberal internationalisation, but will more come to be seen as an elitist and deeply unjust neoliberal project.
The situation in Greece is perhaps best described as what Émile Durkheim’s Suicide termed the “state of anomie” – where ties within a community are thrown into chaos as it descends on a path of breakdown, conflict and instability that it cannot escape. For Durkheim this arose from a lack of institutionalised social ethics, but in its concrete historical incarnations, most notably in inter-war Germany, it has arisen not from a lack of ethics incorporated into a liberal system of law, but from a disjuncture between this moral code and the failure of capitalism to realise the universal prosperity that it took as its raison d’être.
In situations of breakdown the opportunity for anti-capitalist transformation arises indubitably but there is no shortage of instances where far right forces have prospered too. If, however, there is a positive side to the legacy that the 20th century left behind for us today it is a popular aversion to the totalitarianism that blighted attempts at radical social change in the last century. And while we should not be complacent, we can take confidence from the fact that it will not easy for fascist forces to prosper in these circumstances, even though we must be keenly aware of how the perceived “failure of socialism” represents an enduring challenge to the socialist project. It is thus both vitally necessary to the success of our project, and equally necessary to give it any hope of gaining a mass, popular appeal, that we stress its democratic and anti-authoritarian character – that we want workers to “take hold of their own lives”. In this regard, the Greek crisis gives a powerful example of the sham character of liberal capitalist democracy; for its voters rejected austerity in 2009 and got more austerity. Now in 2012 they have rejected austerity again, but they still have a political system that rules above the people and is subject to the demands of global capital.
Here, then, a key task of the radical left must be popular agitation for fundamental anti-capitalist transition which extends democracy right down into the economic structure of our society. But it also needs to popularise a series of immediate policies that push in the direction of a break with the logic of capitalist markets. A good start is to build mass movements that are actively demanding that the international financial markets, which lent to Greece at their own risk, do not get a penny in return; to create jobs in the public sector through a punitive tax on the rich; and take into public control the vast wealth that is still concentred in their hands of small minority within the polity. But at the same time, we need to build forms of organisation, in the context of these enveloping mass movements, that show in embryo a different kind of society is possible, by democratising the workplace and building forms of political organisation that start to empower workers from below.
The only example that we have at our disposal for when workers’ successfully “took the power” in this way remains Russia, 1917, where it was soviets, democratic forms of workplace power, that provided the crucial agency for the transfer of power to working people and it was their decline and bureaucratisation that led to the revolutions’ defeat.
How to form similar bodies – that draw on the best of recent popular movements, such as the social assemblies of the Indignados but extend this form of organisation deeper into the workplaces – is a key question within Greece. This is especially so given that the deepening austerity has made developing popular control of the public sector a vital necessity simply to maintain basic social services on which workers depend. But at the same time, the ‘political question’ – of where state power lies and who it defends – needs to remain front and centre of the renewal of popular anticapitalism. In these tumultuous global times, in Greece’s deep state of anomie, and relatively recent experience of military rule, the left has to remain alert to the danger of a closing down of the democratic process entirely. This would be doubly likely if radically anticapitalist forces started to gain a wider hearing.
All these questions need to be subject to a wider ranging debate on the global left. The return of strategic left wing thinking – that has been long discussed and whose arrival was heralded at various points in the last ten years – needs to become real. The Greek crisis will change the European Union forever, but it also represents a dramatic testing ground for all radical left wing ideas that claim to offer a way out of “anomie”.
Crucially, we cannot see the Greek crisis as a “Greek affair”, but as one that affects all of us. After all, if the people of Europe are to escape the barbaric realities that the “European project” has now imposed on them and to avoid the terrors of the last century, then they we need a different kind of “European project”, one not based on capitalism, but on the principles of a democratic, working class internationalism extending across all borders.