The streets of Athens are covered in Syriza posters that read, “Hope is on the way.” And for many it really feels that way. Not only hope, but their last hope. “If Alexis [Tsipras] fails, there is only fascism left,” one person told me after I arrived in the country, referring to the party’s leader.
But there is more than fear. There is a sense of optimism that things are about to change for the better. The trust among Syriza supporters that the party can improve Greek society, however, has often clouded discussions of the difficulties that a left government would face.
This is understandable. Greece has been stuck in its worst economic and political crisis since the end of the dictatorship in 1974. Taken hostage by the troika, a quarter of the country’s GDP has been destroyed, and youth unemployment stands at 50 percent.
For the first time in a period of peace, the working population in Greece is smaller than the nonworking population. This has meant not only harsh living conditions for workers today, but future crises in the country’s pension and social security system.
Compounding matters, the national debt has risen from 120 to 180 percent of GDP in the last years, with little to show for it. Only 14 percent of the loans given to the Greek state have entered the real economy — the remaining 86 percent have been used to cover banks’ debts.
For Greek elites, it’s no wonder that austerity is the political solution of choice. Their goal was to use the excuse of the debt crisis to rapidly implement a neoliberal agenda, devaluing labor and destroying the welfare state in the process.
However, the “there is no alternative” narrative, which has made it deep into the consciousness of the people in southern Europe, is finally being questioned and stood on its head.
“We need Syriza to win because we don’t have any other alternatives,” says Giannis Panagopoulos, the head of the General Confederation of Trade Unions. This appropriation of the TINA narrative underscores the realm of possibilities that years of struggle and resistance have opened. After all, the seeming inevitability of austerity politics is a dangerous weapon that paralyzes society, an aggressive discourse that reduces the feasible to the existing.
The historical responsibility of the Left is to disrupt such constraints: not to approach politics as a negotiation of the possible within existing bounds, but to make possible what is necessary. This is the hope that Syriza has been able to create.
What Will Syriza Do?
Syriza’s program must be understood as a reflection of the immediate necessities of the Greek people — it’s a program that will change the horizons of what’s achievable by lifting Greek workers out of extreme deprivation, hardship, and unemployment that hold back the further development of the social and labor movements.
The Thessaloniki Program, presented by Tsipras on September 15, has four fundamental pillars:
- Confronting the humanitarian crisis
- Restarting the economy and promoting tax justice
- Regaining employment
- Transforming the political system to deepen democracy
Some of the immediate measures to be applied by a government of the left:
- Employment program for three hundred thousand new jobs;
- Free electricity to three hundred thousand households currently under the poverty line;
- Program of meal subsidies to three hundred thousand families without income;
- Program of housing guarantee;
- Restitution of the Christmas bonus, as 13th pension, to 1.262.920 pensioners with a pension up to €700;
- Free medical and pharmaceutical care for the uninsured unemployed;
- Special public transport card for the long-term unemployed and those who are under the poverty line;
- Restoration of the minimum wage to €751.
Finally, Syriza has stipulated several non-negotiable measures in debt negotiations, including a writing off of the preponderance of public debt, a grace period for debt repayment, a European New Deal financed by the European Investment Bank, and quantitative easing by the European Central Bank (ECB).
Syriza is aware that this is just a beginning. Yiannis Dragasakis, the vice president of the Greek Parliament and drafter of Syriza’s program, said this of long-term strategy:
The problem is not only the memorandum, but the last twenty years of neoliberalism that have been destroying the social welfare system; broadening the perverse relations between the state, the media, and the elites; and destroying labor rights. All this cannot be changed immediately. This is why our program is a program to cover the next ten days, ten months and ten years.
In concrete terms, what is required is restructuring Greece’s entire productive sector, not just the debt. It means a deep transformation of the state structures, the nationalization of a big part of the banking system, the creation of a mechanism to control and monitor corporate tax evasion, as well as the introduction of a progressive tax system.
Building international alliances is also paramount. Syriza’s slogan “Greece goes forward — Europe is changing” reflects the political understanding that Greece won’t be able to change the structures of Europe by itself. This year is a year of elections — in Greece, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Finland, and the United Kingdom. A victory could catalyze the transformation of Europe by communicating that austerity is retreating instead of advancing.
The Euro Question
Syriza’s program is not revolutionary — nor does it intend to be. It is a left reformist program, capable of winning a social majority to advance straightforward proposals that end austerity and rebuild the Greek economy. This applies especially to Syriza’s approach to the question of the euro and the European Union (EU).
The euro question is more than an economical question: it is a political one. There is not a single Greek exit. There are several, and some of them may mean the rise of the nationalist far right. What is called for today is a struggle for left hegemony that shakes the political status quo in southern Europe and redesigns the economic architecture of the eurozone.
A Greek exit would likely mean a devaluation of the national currency — the drachma — in order to make the country’s economy more competitive. But this would probably also mean the devaluation of salaries and pensions in an already impoverished country. Such a course of action may, at some point in the future, be the only possible solution. But any solution can only be applied if there is a social majority in favor of it. This is what it means to say that the euro question is a political question.
Syriza’s program is not weak, but tactically strong: proposing the end of the memorandum and the renegotiation of the debt would give a left government the necessary leverage to force the EU to accept its demands. If the undemocratic structures of the troika do not accept the demands, the populace will place the blame on on them — not the left government. This is the only tactic that might prove capable of winning a social majority for an exit from the left.
Let’s keep in mind that a Greek exit is not something the ruling class of Europe — especially that of Germany — wants. A Greek exit would mean the weakening of Germany’s position in the European and world economy. The International Monetary Fund, the ECB, and the German government are already threatening the Greek people. To refuse a renegotiation of the debt would mean denying sovereignty to a democratically elected government. But such intransigence has opened up significant political space for the European left, the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.
Dignity, Democracy, Justice
In Athens, almost all of the bus stops, squares, and lampposts are covered with posters reminding everyone of Syriza’s “three principles”: “Dignity, Democracy, Justice.” To activists used to neoliberal parties giving cover to their disastrous policies with empty abstractions, this may seem like a bit of propagandistic excess. But in the minds of the majority, these three tenets are profoundly significant.
Dignity stands for the idea of restoring the stolen salaries and pensions and the basic democratic needs: work, health, education, housing. They are the requisite material conditions for struggle.
Democracy means more than rescuing the parliament from the hands of the troika and establishing it as a space of democratic and sovereign decision making. It means the urgent need to deepen participatory democracy, in part by adopting the practices of direct democracy that so many popular organizations (like the ones organized within the Solidarity 4 All network) have been developing.
Justice isn’t merely a moral issue; it is a practical one. At the public meetings I have attended, there is always an audience member who raises her hand to speak about the need for a redress of justice for the crimes committed against the population. In one of these meetings, MP Zoe Konstantopoulou explained that Syriza intends to immediately set up an investigative commission to determine those responsible for the crimes committed through austerity measures and bring them before the courts.
“We don’t want only to change policy,” Dragasakis says. “We want to mobilize people to change policy.” This can only happen when basic needs are satisfied and hope becomes more than a slogan.
A Government and an Opposition
That there would be immense obstacles and difficulties for a left government is overwhelmingly clear. “The work and the struggle starts on the twenty-sixth of January,” people tell me constantly. While it’s difficult to sketch out everything that Syriza would confront, an awareness of those challenges is crucial.
The two main points on how we won’t become a Pasok or even worse are: we must have zero tolerance with corruption, and we need a Syriza which continues to be an autonomous political party from the government and the parliament. We need a “society Syriza” which confronts Syriza’s government itself; a Syriza of the members and not of the leaders.
In practical terms, this must mean respect for the autonomy of movements; continuous strengthening of self-organized networks; and labor and social struggles that develop new ways of organizing society and begin to build the roots and structures of a postcapitalist society.
This weekend, the Greek people are taking their destiny in their hands again, animated by the will and belief that it is possible to change not only Greece, but Europe as a whole. Hope is not only “on the way,” it is here already.