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The Dream That Became a Nightmare

One year after taking power, Greece's Syriza government is facing a wave of popular discontent.

Taken out of context, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s speech celebrating the first year of the Syriza-ANEL government on January 24 might have sounded inspiring: full of references to democracy and popular sovereignty, openly claiming the legacy of the Greek left, defending important government initiatives and denouncing the conservative establishment.

But context is everything. Because at the same time Tsipras delivered his speech, farmers all over Greece were discussing ways to escalate their mass protest against his government’s pension reform, which would increase their social security contributions well beyond their means. The rebellious mood extended to other parts of society as well: lawyers, engineers, and other self-employed professionals were announcing they would continue their own protests, and trade unions were preparing for a February 4 general strike.

Syriza, in other words, is finally facing a wave of popular discontent.

Last week’s general strike was a turning point, with shops closed and mass rallies all over the country — particularly in rural Greece, where farmers joined forces with professionals, the self-employed, and union members. In some places these rallies were bigger than the 2011–12 anti-austerity demonstrations.

Though dubbed “the movement of the tie” — a reference to its middle-class character — the unrest among self-employed professionals (lawyers, engineers, doctors) is fueled by economic insecurity and hardship. The mobilization has put extra pressure on professional associations to adopt a more militant stance, demanding the repeal of the proposed measures instead of accepting the government’s calls for “dialogue.”

So far Syriza has characterized the demonstrations among the self-employed as protests of the affluent middle classes who voted “yes” in the referendum and refuse to pay their fair share. In reality, the new system of social security contributions is putting extreme pressure exactly on those parts of the “professional classes” that are not affluent and whose “self-employed” status disguises that they too are workers.

Moreover, for young degree holders — in a country with extremely high youth unemployment — the new pension system practically means they must abandon hope of pursuing a career or simply migrate. Already more than two hundred thousand young Greek degree-holders have sought employment abroad.

The farmer mobilization has been even more explosive. A mass rally in Salonica on January 28 led to the cancellation of the Agrotica Fair, one of the country’s biggest agricultural trade fairs. Farmers have also carried out mass roadblocks in many areas, halting highway traffic across Greece.

Each of the dozens of blockades act as an assembly point for local farmers. One of the most militant constellations — representing sixty roadblocks, with a strong presence from the Greek Communist Party and other left-wing forces — is planning to hold a large national protest in Athens this weekend.

The government knows the protests are a big problem — agriculture remains important in the country, and farmers are a powerful voting bloc. Its response has been twofold: first, insist that not passing pension reform would jeopardize the country’s farm subsidies from the European Union and participation in the eurozone. And second, divide farmers by trying to negotiate with some of the less “intransigent” protest elements and attempt to discredit the movement among the wider public.

While frustrated with the government, farmers do have the support and solidarity of local communities. And much is at stake. Increased social security contributions would drastically reduce their income, making small-scale farming even more precarious.

The system the government is attempting to introduce resembles the “three-pillar” system the EU promotes: namely, the combination of a national state minimum pension, a state-guaranteed occupational retirement system based on contributions (albeit with a low replacement rate and increased age requirement), and a private savings account.

In other words, the government is promoting a neoliberal reform that will likely only become more draconian since the European “institutions” are pushing for even lower replacement rates (the percentage of a worker’s pre-retirement income that is paid out by a pension program on retirement) and for immediate cuts to pensions already being disbursed. This last demand, inscribed in the third memorandum, is crucial because it’s not only pensioners who rely on these funds, but their younger, unemployed family members.

The neoliberal reforms don’t end there — sweeping privatization is also on the agenda. The sale of fourteen regional airports to a German-Greek consortium and the announcement that an offer for the Port of Piraeus from a Chinese company has been accepted are just the signs of things to come. The privatizations followed the recapitalization of the Greek banking system, which was made on terms favorable to private shareholders and investors. These private interests then gained control of the banks despite the huge infusions of public money.

In defense of these policies, the Greek government points to a parallel program of social measures that would alleviate economic hardship. But so far, the measures only seem to reach those in extreme poverty — such as the “solidarity card,” a sort of food stamps program — or consist of long overdue family law amendments such as extending the civic pact to same-sex couples. Even the long-awaited higher education reform bill — which was supposed to repeal some of the more authoritarian measures introduced in universities after 2011 — has been retracted twice because of pressure from the “institutions.”

Nevertheless, Syriza has still been able to present itself as a popular party. The rise of New Democracy’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis — a politician who represents the hard neoliberal, anti-populist wing of the Greek center-right and enjoys the support of both big business and Greece’s creditors — has provided Syriza with a clear foil. The message is simple: things could always get worse — imagine if those guys were in power.

In this sense, the current political debate sounds like one in other European countries, pitting a neoliberal center-right against a social-democratic center-left. Yet there is an important caveat: not only have both Syriza and New Democracy accepted the third memorandum, but the actual decision-making process in the country lies not in the Greek parliament but endless negotiations with European representatives.

In reality, the Syriza leadership’s message is a cynical one: if austerity is being administered, at least it’s the Left doing it — as if having a left government is an end in itself. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pasok played the same card to push austerity measures, exploiting the fear of the Right in a country that still had memories of civil war and dictatorship.

This sense that Syriza wants to retain power at all costs was reinforced by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s revelations concerning the Greek government’s pre-referendum negotiation tactics. The Syriza leadership, Varoufakis said, had rejected in advance any thought about a rupture with the eurozone and refused to prepare for eurozone pressure. This stance accounts for the quick decision to capitulate to the creditors despite the referendum’s results.

In another noteworthy interview, the Bank of Greece’s governor revealed that in the days before the vote, he was discussing with his legal advisers, former prime ministers, and other public figures ways to obstruct the Greek government from breaking with the eurozone. In any other context, this would have been considered a nascent coup d’état. In Europe, it is the new normal.

At the same time, the EU and the IMF are pushing for even more aggressive reforms. Not only are they rejecting the Greek government’s pension reform and demanding extra cuts, but they are making it clear the process of evaluating the country’s progress (the condition for receiving the next bailout payment) will not be easy. Moreover, the reluctance of the EU to guarantee safe passage for refugees and asylum seekers and the decision to close borders across Europe is putting more pressure on Greece — currently the main entry point on the continent for refugees.

More than a year after Syriza’s election, the country remains in the throes of a deep social and political crisis. Mitsotakis’s election to the leadership of New Democracy has given new impetus to a right wing that seeks a government of traditional pro-austerity forces.

The combination of escalating protests and troika pressure for even harsher measures has put the Greek government in an untenable position. For their part, Tsipras and the Syriza leaders are reportedly considering an early election as a way out of the current impasse. But the troika has little patience for elections. In fact, they prefer coalition governments and a general sense that it is impossible to democratically challenge neoliberal policies.

It is too soon to say whether the Syriza-ANEL government will remain intact, or whether there will be another election or a different government coalition. Much will depend on the size and duration of the current protests, and the labor movement’s involvement in the protests. The February 4 general strike was a sign of hope. But we should not forget that in the present social and political climate, despair about social conditions exists alongside disillusionment about the possibility of change.

This contradiction is even more intense if we take into consideration the strategic crisis of the Greek left. So far, Syriza’s transformation from anti-austerity movement to neoliberal government has not been countered by an alternative strategy. The discussions in the European left regarding a potential “Plan B” — championed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Stefano Fassina, Varoufakis, Zoe Constantopoulou, and the left of Podemos — indulge fantasies of “another Europe” and in particular “another euro.” This position ignores the lessons of the Greek experience: that a progressive solution inside the eurozone is impossible.

Yet equally problematic is the attitude, common in both the Greek Communist Party and some tendencies of the anticapitalist left, that Syriza’s capitulation obviates the importance of discussing strategy. Disconnected anticapitalist rhetoric and references to an imaginary “Red October” or “people’s power” cannot hide the fact that some have refused to engage in a serious debate on strategy and tactics, the potential and challenges of a radical left government today, and a transition program that could bridge the gap between immediate demands and socialist transformation.

The same goes for attempts to simply repeat the path of Syriza, even in the form of a militant anti-euro, anti-austerity party (the road chosen so far by Popular Unity). “Fail better” mantras cannot be a substitute for strategy.

What is needed is to actually learn from what happened. Greece proved that political change is possible, provided that we translate social dynamics into political projects. It also proved that without a clear and well-prepared strategy of rupture, defeat is practically inevitable. Greece offered the testing ground for simply governing using the existing institutional framework. We now we have the results of that experiment.

Without a will to break with existing international “legality,” and without a reliance on the power of extra-parliamentary movements, Syriza was doomed to failure. At the same time, Greece shows that while a break with the burden of debt and the eurozone’s financial straitjacket is a necessary condition to reversing austerity, it is not enough: what is needed are real alternatives that push against market logic. Without such alternatives, we will only be able to tell people that their lives are in ruins (something of which they are already well aware) — not instill confidence in them that anything can change.

One year ago, it was impossible not to see some potential in Greece’s shifting political tide. It seemed that a window of opportunity had opened for the forces of the radical left inside and outside Syriza. With Syriza’s surrender, it seems the Left has chosen to close that window itself. But that need not be the end of the story.

The depth of the Greek crisis — accentuated by the continuing crisis of European integration and occurring in the context of a global economy marked by sharp contradictions — means “stabilization” is still a pipe dream. Yet even amid the wreckage, the Left has an opportunity to begin to restore political confidence, starting with the current pension reform struggle.

Rebuilding Greek social movements and the Greek left are the two mighty tasks in front of us — and our only alternative to despair and surrender.