By KD Tait
5 March 2015
Syriza’s failure to secure concessions on Greece’s loan repayments shows the weakness of a strategy based on exploiting divisions within Europe’s ruling class. The priority now is to halt the retreat, and to prepare the working class to take all measures necessary to defy the Eurozone and carry out Syriza’s electoral programme.
Fresh from masterminding Syriza’s humiliation at the hands of the Troika, Greece’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has pledged to “squeeze blood out of stone” to repay IMF debts due this month.
The 20 February agreement between Greece and the Eurozone ministers is a betrayal of Syriza’s promises to end austerity, to make no more sacrifices for the euro, and to put the interests of workers before those of the bosses.
From campaigning for a write-off of the debt, Greece has committed to “complete fully and swiftly all of its financial obligations towards its partners”.
The four-month extension to the second bailout was made conditional on Syriza running a budget surplus, that is, continuing with austerity. Instead of appealing to the working class of Greece and Europe to mobilise against this blackmail, Varoufakis, who describes himself as an “erratic Marxist”, revealed himself to be a charlatan in the service of capital.
Presented as a necessary compromise, Varoufakis suggests that the extension allows Syriza to carry out 20 per cent of its anti-austerity measures. But the only thing it actually guarantees is that the €1.8 billion due to the IMF in March will be paid on the dot and to the last cent.
The seven-page document that outlined the concessions that Syriza “negotiated” in return for a little more rope is a damning list of attacks that Syriza was elected to oppose.
In short, Syriza has promised to repay all of the debt that it once rightly denounced as illegitimate and made all measures to improve the situation of working and poor people subject to approval by the same Institutions that it promised to kick out.
Syriza promised to restore the monthly minimum wage from €580 to €751. This has been replaced with a promise to raise it “over time”, in a manner that safeguards competitiveness and productivity, alongside “labour market reforms” deemed necessary to create a “better business environment”.
Worse, “the scope and timing of changes to the minimum wage will be made in consultation with social partners and the European and international institutions.” Syriza has effectively issued the working class an undated cheque, one that has to be signed by the same people that have cut the paychecks of many Greeks by up to 50 per cent.
Gone too is the promise to create 300,000 new jobs and rehire 10,000 civil servants illegally sacked by the last government – a victim of Syriza’s new promise to “identify cost-saving measures through a thorough review of spending by every ministry.”
One area where they could save costs and carry out their programme is the promise to disband the riot squads, and to merge the special DIAS, ZIRA and DELTA squads. It seems that here too, reforms have been kicked into the long grass.
Syriza pledged unequivocally to halt privatisations of ports, airports and energy utilities. This is now hamstrung by a commitment not to roll back privatisations that have been completed, and that “where the tender process has been launched the government will respect the process, according to the law.”
Because this concession has roused the most opposition within Syriza, indeed within the cabinet, Varoufakis now has to juggle with words, talking of “creative ambiguities” in the terms of the agreement. He states:
“The law gives the government possibilities to both change the terms of the procedure and at some point to check the legality of this procedure. […] Our position is very simple. The sell-off of family silver at rock-bottom prices and in a way that doesn’t lead to development for the economy must stop.”
Economy Minister George Stathakis, is bolder still: “We will cancel the privatisation of the Piraeus Port. It will remain permanently under state majority holding. […] The deal for the sale of the Greek airports will have to be drastically revised. It all goes to one company. There is no way it will get through the Greek parliament.”
The Institutions will certainly try to enforce the letter of this agreement, but opposition within Syriza will push the government to bargain for the “best deal”. This is better than abject surrender, but it is not enough.
Workers facing the threat of privatisation should not put their trust in the diplomatic word games and manoeuvres of Syriza ministers but in their own collective strength. If the government won’t stop privatisations and renationalise industries, then occupations, and opening the accounts to public scrutiny should be used to force the government to choose sides.
Despite the government’s retreat Syriza can still rely on a huge reservoir of goodwill amongst a population enthused by a government that has taken, if only rhetorically, a tough line in negotiations. The reforms outlined in the proposals accepted by the Eurogroup are limited, but the extent to which they will make an immediate improvement to the terrible conditions of thousands should not be dismissed lightly.
Free electricity for 300,000 households under the poverty line and food subsidies for the same number of families with no income have been maintained. Pledges to provide free medical care for those without insurance or jobs and a ban on repossessions for those in mortgage arrears have not yet been reneged on.
Syriza’s problem is that it has not set out how these measures will be funded. Syriza has committed to ensuring relief measures have no “negative fiscal effect”, that is, that all increases in spending will be compensated by cuts elsewhere. This means that the only way it can fund them is through extra income derived from reforms to the tax system, anti-corruption measures and the collection of unpaid taxes. Paul Mason, Channel 4 News economics editor, sums up this dilemma neatly:
“There are no costings for the Greek programme, and therefore no way of calculating how much ‘fiscal space’ Greece has won from the former troika. ‘Fiscal space’ in the Greek crisis is the codeword for non-austerity: how much relief from austerity did the Greek electorate gain by putting the Syriza-ANEL coalition into power?
“We won’t know the answer until a crucial blank space is filled in. Greece is supposed to run a primary surplus on its budget – i.e. the opposite of a deficit – to the tune of 4 per cent of GDP. As the economy is tanking due to uncertainty, and tax receipts dried up in the last two months of the old government, that is impossible – and to achieve it would only require even further cuts to public spending.” 1
Enter Finance Minister Varoufakis, who has a cunning plan. Since the agreement contains no specific figures, there is apparently room for “interpretation”. In the words of Varoufakis:
“What we all did was to find common ground. And the way you find common ground when you start from quite disparate positions is by using terms that allow for multiple interpretations in order to create room for disagreement.”2
The response of German Finance Ministry spokeswoman Marianne Kothe, insisted that any concessions were made only for 2015: “That means that the target agreed in the program — the figure of 4.5 percent of gross domestic product is important here — still goes.”
Summoning all his creative powers, Varoufakis replied: “This is not my understanding of what we agreed to”.
Here one is reminded of an exchange in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Does professor Varoufakis really believe he can out-interpret the ECB, the IMF or the German government? Or is he just trying to quiet the growing alarm of Syriza’s supporters? In any case it is sure that the Institutions will – sooner rather than later – show him who is to be master.
The strategy of the Syriza leadership was to court the political class of Europe, themselves under pressure from electorates opposed to austerity, and persuade them that it was in their interests to abandon austerity in favour of a Keynesian growth programme.
They severely miscalculated both the ability and the willingness of the political elites to abandon a strategy that every party of government has been wedded to since the onset of the Great Recession.
Worse, in their tour of European capitals, Syriza met in secret negotiations with the chief representatives of the ruling class but spurned the organisations and campaigns of the labour movement, the only forces to express unconditional solidarity with their declared aims.
It is true that Syriza’s negotiating team was blackmailed by the ECB’s decision to restrict access to liquidity for Greek banks. It is true that the German government demanded unconditional surrender backed by threats to kick Greece out of the Eurozone.
But it was no secret that Germany, as the hegemonic force in Europe, commanded the unflinching support of not only Finland and the Netherlands, but also Spain and other countries whose governments were embroiled in inflicting the same poisonous “medicine” of austerity on their own peoples. All were desperate to see the hope of an anti-austerity government strangled at birth.
Syriza hoped that separate bilateral negotiations with each EU government would allow it to divide its opponents. But this was never likely to sway the hard faced bankers, bureaucrats and politicians who imposed “technocratic” regimes on Italy and Greece when they proved unable to pass austerity budgets.
Syriza opened negotiations by abandoning its strongest cards. It refused to go over the heads of pro-capitalist presidents and unelected bankers to appeal directly to their working classes to rally in support of the first government elected on a programme of ending austerity. By publishing the secret agreements and negotiations it could have exposed the extent to which Germany and the Troika have blackmailed and extorted the Greek people.
It even ditched its demand for a European debt conference to discuss a common reduction or write-down of national debt. Its insistence on remaining in the Eurozone suggested that it would do so at any cost.
Syriza’s capitulation was not merely that of a naive new government being taken to the cleaners by experienced political operators. It was the logical outcome of the strategy of a political current that claims to stand for “socialism” and “Marxism”, but that rejects the idea that the working class can organise to advance a revolutionary alternative to the crisis of the capitalist system.
Or, in the words of Varoufakis:
“[T]he question that arises for radicals is this: should we welcome this crisis of European capitalism as an opportunity to replace it with a better system? Or should we be so worried about it as to embark upon a campaign for stabilising European capitalism?
“To me, the answer is clear. Europe’s crisis is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.”3
It is true that without forces willing to organise the struggle for a “better alternative” (socialism), then a “humanitarian bloodbath” (barbarism) will doubtless ensue. The working class of Greece and Europe must become the intransigent opponents of Varoufakis’s project of saving capitalism from itself.
As long as the Syriza leadership remains committed to acting within the limits of capitalism, limits enforced by the imperialist muscle of “the Institutions”, then only austerity and social catastrophe await the people of Greece.
The urgent task now is therefore to prevent the potential embodied by Syriza’s mandate for radical anti-austerity measures from being squandered by a leadership that has no confidence in the power of the working class.
This means organising a vigorous campaign within the party and within the wider labour movement in Greece and Europe to implement Syriza’s programme in full, and to defend it from the sabotage and attacks of its class enemies at home and abroad, and thus to open up a struggle not just against austerity and its neoliberal political advocates but against capitalism itself.
Syriza has several organised currents critical of the majority line. The biggest is the Left Platform, whose role is significant both in terms of its size and its lack of a credible alternative strategy.
At a meeting of the Syriza parliamentary fraction on 25 February, debate raged for twelve hours as MPs criticised the deal presented by Tsipras. In a non-binding vote, around a third of MPs present voted against or abstained, demonstrating that opposition extends beyond the Left Platform’s ranks.
The party’s Central Committee met over the weekend of 28 February to discuss a proposal from the pro-Tsipras majority to ratify the Agreement. A critical amendment from the Left Platform opposed the deal and called on the party to “take the initiative of implementing steadily and as a matter of priority its commitments and the content of its programmatic governmental statement,” and to do this “despite the agreements of the Eurogroup”.
It called on the party to “rely on workers’ and popular struggles, to contribute to their revitalisation, and to the continuous expansion of popular support in order to resist to any form of blackmail.”
This amendment was defeated by 92 votes to 68, with 6 blank votes or abstentions. This nevertheless represents a growth in opposition to the majority line, confirmed by the 64 votes secured by Left Platform candidate for party secretary Alekos Kalyvis, against 102 for Tsipras’s candidate Tasos Koronakis.
But a major weakness in the Left Platform’s amendment is that it did not spell out any concrete proposals for mobilising workers, party members and the left outside Syriza, to carry out Syriza’s programme. The acid test now will be whether they break ranks and vote for the Communist Party (KKE) bill in parliament, which calls for the scrapping of past loan agreements and the repeal of all regressive laws passed as part of previous memoranda. And they should do so, paving the way for a united front of the working class and the left to reject austerity measures in their entirety.
The drachma panacea
Tsipras’s setback at the hands of the Eurogroup and Varoufakis’s admission that a further bailout may be necessary has put wind in the sails of those who advocate withdrawal from the Euro.
The academics Stathis Kouvelakis, reader in political theory at King’s College London, and Costas Lapavitsas, professor of economics at SOAS are two prominent advocates of this perspective.
According to Kouvelakis, a member of Syriza’s central committee, “…defeat was inevitable and marks the end of the strategy of ‘a positive solution inside the euro,’ or to be more accurate ‘a positive solution at all costs inside the euro’.”4
He explains that:
“In the Left Platform’s view, the government has to break out of the confines of the accords that it has signed and implement some of its key policies without first seeking permission from the institutions. And with an eye to June’s negotiations, it has proposed an “alternative plan” that doesn’t shy away from taking “unilateral” measures, including — if there is any more blackmail over the country’s financing — breaking from the euro framework.”5
Lapavitsas, now a Syriza member of the Greek parliament, also insists, “The most vital step is to realise that the strategy of hoping to achieve radical change within the institutional framework of the common currency has come to an end.”6
The success or failure of the strategy that Syriza pursues in the months ahead won’t be determined solely by internal party struggles, nor by clever diplomatic manoeuvres, let alone through the exploitation of “creative ambiguity”. It depends ultimately on the attitude the mass of workers and unemployed.
A poll for the Syriza-affiliated Avgi newspaper, published on 25 February, shows the majority of Greeks are under no illusions about how dependent Greece is on Europe:
Some 76 per cent of respondents had a “positive” view of the euro, with 75 per cent considering exit from the euro “not possible”. In a referendum on the euro, 73 per cent would vote for retaining it, while just 18 per cent considered a return to the drachma to be a “positive” step. And 61 per cent had a “positive” view of the EU, while 43 per cent thought the EU should be Greece’s main ally, with Russia a distant second on 13 per cent.7
It is clear from the popular support for Syriza’s negotiations and its rise in the polls that a major mobilisation could be organised to demand that Syriza be permitted to carry through its programme, within the Eurozone – and against the wishes of the EU leaders.
It should be clear that any attempt to impose Syriza’s programme courts the risk of Greece’s expulsion from the Eurozone. However to conclude, as the Left Platform does, that Greece should simply exit the Euro on its own terms would be a major tactical mistake.
It would place all the responsibility for the consequences of Grexit on Syriza itself, letting the eurocrats off the hook. It would also alienate the mass of people who don’t want to be the guinea pigs for a left-nationalist experiment in economic autarky.
A new currency – the drachma or other – would plummet against the euro, wiping out savings and devaluing wages and pensions. Interest rates and bankruptcies would rocket. Greece’s dependence on imports would force the rationing of food, medicine and basic goods.
A policy of national autarky or alliance with other imperialist powers also presupposes the abandonment of Syriza’s programme. Russia or China might be willing to bankroll some social reforms in the short term, but only if they were sure of recouping their pound of flesh with interest.
An independent Greek state that doesn’t break with capitalism could only compete in the world market (and therefore grow its economy and deliver on its promises of future repayment) if the rate of exploitation of its working class was sufficient to make its industries competitive. And the state would have to become the tool for enforcing this, meaning either that Syriza would have to do away with its programme, or that the state would do away with Syriza.
Fight or flight?
Syriza won the election with the message that it wanted an exit from austerity and not from the European Union – and that it wanted this for all the working people of Europe and not just for Greece. This message was a rallying point for the European working class. The bullying of the Institutions and of German capitalism exposed the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the European Union.
The left in Syriza and in Greece should point out that the real enemy is not merely the neoliberal policy of European capital, but the dictatorship of the capitalist class itself, which tramples on formal democratic rights whenever they present an obstacle to its class interests.
If the Syriza leadership is limited by its limits to its ambitions, then the left is limited by its limited horizons. Now is not the time for rearguard actions, but rather to prepare to rally workers to a force that will deliver on its promises.
The Left Platform is right to insist that the government needs to be forced to carry out its Thessaloniki programme in full, and to warn that confronting the EU means preparing for the EU to cut off credit to the country’s banks and start the process of kicking it out of the Eurozone.
The only way to counter these moves is to prepare the working class now to take the necessary measures of self-defence against capital. How? By the expropriation of the banks, by imposing a monopoly on foreign trade and by putting power into the hands of working class assemblies and a popular militia.
By these measures, Syriza and the working class of Greece would be demonstrating the way forward for all of Europe’s workers. Just as there is no progressive solution for the workers of Greece in an “independent” capitalist Greece, so they will need to appeal to the European working class to carry out similar measures against their own governments to stop them sabotaging Greece.
This perspective, which insists on the ability of the working class to seize the moment of capitalism’s historic crisis to be the agents of its own emancipation is infinitely preferable to the cynical lie that we are not “ready”. After all, if not now, when?
If Syriza is to resist a new capitalist offensive it must prepare to take anticapitalist measures to disarm first its own domestic bosses, and appeal to the workers of Europe to do the same to theirs.
This means creating fighting bodies that can organise millions in this struggle: assemblies, strike committees and action committees to coordinate it. It means the total disbanding of the brutal police squads and their replacement by workers’ defence guards. It means the nationalisation under workers’ control of all privatised industries and the banks, to prevent capital flight and sabotage. In short, it means a workers’ government that can fight against Greek and foreign capital.
The weeks and months to come are full of potential.
If the Greek workers lead the way in counterposing workers’ power to the dicatorship of European capital, they would inspire millions more enter down the road of a revolutionary refoundation of the entire European project; one that breaks with capitalism and that unites hundreds of millions of workers in the construction of a radical new future, a socialist united states of Europe.