Friday, January 23, 2015

Athens

The collapse of the Greek government has finally created the opportunity for Syriza to make the breakthrough that it was denied in 2012.  The situation is, of course, very different.  

The ruling class has stabilised its position somewhat.  The economic crisis has bottomed out.  The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn are no longer useful to the bourgeoisie, and have faced crackdowns.  The state is no longer in permanent deadlock.  There is no longer a state of protracted near-insurrection.  The balance of forces within Syriza has shifted to the right, and its strategy for government is far more cautious.  And the EU elites have had more than two years to prepare for this moment - their current game plan being to work for a weak Syriza-led government dependent on coalitions with parties to its right, and then isolate the left-wing of Syriza so that they can deal exclusively with a more conciliatory leadership.  

Nonetheless, there is an insurgent atmosphere in Athens, which no report fails to mention.  The anticipation of a breakthrough is not misplaced, and not to be dismissed as yet more parliamentary illusions.  The breakdown of the old modes of representation is of huge significance, and its consequences have yet to be fully registered in the parliamentary system.  That creates a degree of uncertainty that is unusual in the managed parliamentary democracies of the neoliberal era.

The largest parts of the wage-earning working class have turned to the radical left, even if Syriza's roots in the organised working class remain weak.  This is a huge contrast from the tendency in northern European countries, where the most pronounced tendency is the crisis of the Left, combined with the dynamism of the Right exerting a gravitational pull on a sector of (mainly older) workers.  The Greek left turn is linked to a generational shift, in cultural and social attitudes, reflected in Syriza's anti-authoritarianism and egalitarian social politics.  Its candidates are more likely than those of the traditional parties to include members of stigmatised minorities - indeed, its refusal of anti-Turkish bigotry and willingness to promote Muslim candidates has generated some of the attack lines of the red-baiting press.  It is willing to adopt policies which polls would suggest are deeply unpopular, such as 'naturalising' large numbers of immigrants.  

Perhaps one could productively compare the emergence of Syriza (and now Podemos) with the 'pink tide' in Latin America, where a similar combination of immediate anti-neoliberal struggles and long-term generational shifts have not only brought new political leaderships to power, from Morales to Correa, but also transformed the party system and the dominant political culture, enshrining rights for minorities, gays and women, alongside making gains for workers and limiting further corporate encroachments using the language of national sovereignty - without, however, being able to fundamentally break with neoliberalism or even, in Correa's case, to reverse dollarisation.

We can have all sorts of hypotheses about how things will work out with Syriza in office, trying to implement an anti-austerity agenda.  There are semi-plausible arguments that Berlin will ultimately be inclined to throw Syriza a bone, the better to avoid generating a new, unnecessary crisis.  I think this overestimates how rational the EU elites are, and underestimates their vindictiveness.  I think if the situations favours it, they will want to continue to make an example of Greece one way or another, and demonstrate that this left populism stuff isn't going to fly.  I think they will be brutal in the negotiations, and that whatever concessions they offer will be deliberately insulting.  My guess is that only if Syriza has the strongest mandate possible, an outright parliamentary majority, coupled with a renewed mobilisation of social and workers' movements to try to fulfil the party's promises, will the EU be inclined to cut them a half-away decent deal.  Yet even the more pessimistic scenario wouldn't preclude real gains that shift the balance of power in favour of workers, democratise the state, humanise the immigration system, and so on.

However the point, now as before, is to test these hypotheses by getting Syriza elected.