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Greece: Against Defeatism

As strange as it may sound, there are reasons to be cheerful in Greece and across Europe.

Oxi supporters celebrate in front of the Greek Parliament following the July 5 referendum. Dimitris Michalakis / Reuters

It was a strange night. No one called for a demonstration, but thousands made their way to Syntagma Square simply knowing that it was the moment for collective celebration.

On July 5, the Greek people showed the world once again what democracy looks like. They considered a proposal framed by the stooges of European capital, and unequivocally rejected it.

Beyond that joyous square and beyond even Athens and Greece, there were others celebrating that night’s triumphs. Across the world friends and comrades were glued to their televisions and computers, basking in and sharing with each other the defiance of the Greek people. For us on the Left, in every part of the world, it was a rare moment of elation when against the usual insurmountable odds, we felt vindicated. For now, our seemingly invincible enemy had been decidedly confounded.

That feeling was short-lived. Soon after, we learned of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s concession to every clause laid out by a vengeful ­­group that demanded not just Syriza’s retreat, but abject humiliation. They got their pound of flesh and then some.

Stathis Kouvelakis has offered the most compelling account so far of Tsipras’s inability to act on the referendum. Tsipras, he holds, was hemmed in not just by the troika and his own lack of leadership, but also by the conservative forces in his negotiating team. Whatever the reason, the lightning speed of this political backflip has left us dazed.

Understandably, the dominant note on the Left is currently one of anger at the Syriza leadership for not using the referendum to chart a different course. The acceptance of the austerity package has been variously portrayed, for instance, as a serious defeat of the working class or as a total surrender to the claim that “there is no alternative.”

While there is certainly justification for these indignant attacks, they also often mask a familiar feeling of defeatism. The might of capital wins yet again, the narrative goes, and this time, in spite of the heroic stand of the Greek people.

The temptation to despair and declare defeat, however, is unwarranted. The events being fresh, our focus is still squarely on the squandered possibilities for radical transformation. But we cannot ignore that significant advances have also been made over the past few weeks.

Whether Greece 2015 will ultimately go down as yet another tale of left reversal and loss or the beginning of something very different will depend in part on how we interpret and act on the present.

First, there’s the referendum. Regardless of his motives and his failings, Tsipras did do something remarkable. For several months, he was on the receiving end of an exertion of power that is focused in its objectives, brutal in its methods, and sports the arrogance of the unchallengeable. He and the academics on his team quickly learned that their powerful counterparts had no interest in enlightened debates; their sole aim, then and now, is to ensure that the dictates of capital are fully carried out.

Confronted with the full might of such power, Tsipras, to his credit, remembered what is easy to forget: there are other sources of power. The referendum was an invocation of that power.

The most significant outcome of the referendum is that it has mobilized the base of Syriza in particular and of the Greek left in general. If the decision to call for a referendum eventually earns Tsipras his salvation in history, we certainly hope ignoring its result will shortly prove to be his downfall. Tsipras lost the support of dozens of Syriza MPs, was forced to reshuffle his cabinet, and now faces a rank-and-file rebellion within his own party.

The ensuing crystallization of battle lines on the question of “Grexit” — a Greek exit from the eurozone — is the silver lining of the horrendous agreement signed in Brussels. Grexit was not on the manifesto with which Syriza came to power in January. Even the Oxi voters in the referendum had mixed feelings about the prospect of leaving the eurozone. And yet, only days later, it can be safely assumed that for any future left formation, the demand for an economic restructuring based on Grexit is a certainty. The Greek people won’t be fooled again by the euro dream.

Others across Europe are also waking up from that dream. The news of the referendum generated a harsh spotlight on the infamous “negotiations.” Europeans have witnessed the enactment of the contradiction between the stated goal of European unity and the mandates of capital. They have borne witness to the actuality of the eurozone: an entity that purportedly delinks economic management from politics, thus insulating the interests of capital from political accountability.

Capital within national borders is at least circumscribed by the sovereign power of its own state and forced to respect the sovereignty of other states. Within the extra-national entity of the eurozone, capital is unburdened by such political restrictions and has proceeded to crush all claims to sovereignty other than its own. The democratic mandate of the Greek people, their opposition to the economics of austerity, has meant nothing. The undemocratic core of the eurozone has been exposed.

Like drug lords harvesting the organs of one indebted to them but unable to pay, eurocrats respected no boundaries in drawing up their memorandum. Greek ruins and islands are up for sale so financiers can be paid back. The European Union (EU) will now have veto power over draft legislation before it is presented to Greece’s parliament or to its citizens. Europe has watched as Greece has been turned into a debt-colony in the name of European unity.

“The E.U. exists to require nations to ‘pool’ their sovereignties in unelected, unaccountable bureaucracies. The retrograde point of the E.U. is to leech from national parliaments powers that were hard-won over many centuries of struggle.” No, this is not Jürgen Habermas or Paul Krugman; it is from George Will, a conservative columnist at the Washington Post.

In the mainstream media, the Greek crisis has thus been portrayed as the crisis of the EU. The narrative of Greece’s putative fiscal irresponsibility was eclipsed by caustic commentaries on Germany’s punitive stance and its impact on the future of the EU. Even as we applaud this development, we must remain wary of the often regressive advocacy for nationalism.

The eurozone should be opposed not because it transcends national borders but because it exists to protect and promote the interests of unregulated capital. The Greek crisis and the referendum concretized for Europe and the world what the Left has known: capitalism and solidarity are incompatible. This is no mean feat.

We can also take some solace in the spectacle of chinks in the ruling-class armor. The rift between France and Germany over their leadership roles has resulted in a lot of speculation with regards to the future of the EU.

But it is the International Monetary Fund’s public distancing from the troika that has been even more satisfying. Declaring the Greek debt “unsustainable,” the IMF has called for the kind of debt relief measures that Europe was not willing to consider. It is quite remarkable when the IMF, which wreaked havoc with its infamous “structural adjustment” programs across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, suddenly becomes the advocate for debt relief.

Of course, through this pointed critique, the IMF is voicing the United States’s geopolitical anxieties attached to the possibility of Grexit and its ensuing fallout. As Robert Brenner has suggested, the US knows well how to conduct class warfare, and while always prepared to use massive force against its own population, it also knows where to draw the line. The US has thus taken strong exception to Germany’s unbecoming emotion and virulence, as such a stance only feeds serious resistance.

While signs of fractures in the ruling classes are always a welcome sight, the greatest achievement of the Greek resistance is the unities it has forged in Europe and beyond. Scores of solidarity rallies in support of Oxi were held across Europe, including in Germany, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, Turkey, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and also in other countries like the US and Australia.

More recently, protests occurred in fourteen German cities because as one demonstrator said, Germans “want everybody to see the other face of Europe. A face of solidarity.” After the Occupy movement in 2011, this has been the largest international mobilization of the Left.

This is why the sense of defeatism on the Left is unwarranted. Occupy was never equipped to offer a sustained challenge to capital, and the Syriza leadership never invested in a radical economic restructuring. But the ascendency of these historical moments in popular consciousness paves the path for further advances.

We forget that movements have afterlives. The city square occupations in Greece in 2011, an anti-austerity movement connecting it to Occupy, was transformative for Syriza’s mass appeal and eventual electoral success. That success may not have shifted the burden of austerity, but it did occasion the Oxi vote. The mobilization resulting from this referendum will make further advances.

European Council leader Donald Tusk recently confessed that he’s “really afraid” of the power of “this radical leftist illusion that you can build some alternative” to the current EU economic model. Let us acknowledge our successes and continue the struggle so we can make that “illusion” a reality.