Syriza Against the Machine

The Syriza lead Greek government, elected on January 25, 2015, has been at the receiving end of a major economic and media assault.  It began on February 4, 2015 when the European Central Bank (ECB) cut off the main source of financing of Greek banks and also threatened to cut off the only other source, the Emergency Liquidity Assistance.  Greece was under threat of a banking collapse.  The usual scare tactics of the Greek Media and conservative New Democracy (ND) party prompted Greeks to start pulling money out of their accounts out of fear of seeing their savings vanish thereby further draining the baking system of capital.  The then Troika (EU, ECB, IMF) figured the Greek government would simply capitulate and continue the austerity memorandum, business as usual. The opposition ND was waiting on the side lines for the Tsipras government to collapse, so it could come back into power after this “Left parenthesis” and show Greeks and Europeans that there really is no alternative.  But this did not happen; Syriza held its ground.  Facing a euro crisis on February 28th, Greece and its “partners” reached a vague 4-month bridge compromise on February 20, 2015.  The deal was to keep money flowing into the Greek banking system until a new arrangement is agreed upon sometime in June.   Greece had to present a list of reforms to the European creditors, which Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis did and which were approved.  Remaining issues were left to be negotiated in a month, by April 20th and the next tranche of IMF money would be released, allowing the Greek economy to function and Syriza to go about its business of governing.

Yet, this was not the case.

It was obvious that the European establishment was not happy with the election of Syriza and it wanted to nib this problem in the bud before other countries, like Spain, Ireland, Portugal, or Italy get any ideas or even worse, before a European wide movement takes shape against the neo-liberal structure of the EU and begins discussing and agitating for alternatives.   Unlike what the citizens of Europe may have thought they were getting into, the EU is not a democratic confederation of peoples, but an economic space completely under the control of the European establishment namely, the Financial and Corporate elite, the traditional European oligarchs, the neo-liberal politicians (no matter what meaningless party label they use) and unelected technocrats in their service. Of course, the German state is the hegemon of this establishment, but its interests more or less converge with the interests of the European ruling class.  This is the true architecture of the European Union.  Syriza is a disturbance to this order that must be quashed.  In order to fully appreciate the current impasse between Syriza and its creditors, it must be seen outside the narrow nationalist paradigm of Germans vs Greeks and be seen for what it truly is, a class war.

The German state is simply the most powerful guarantor of the privileges of this European establishment, after the US of course.  As such, the German establishment convinced large sectors of the German working class that they have common interests and that they are bailing out their southern European neighbors who are too lazy, too corrupt or too disorganized to run a modern successful economy.  The European Media made sure that simple facts were not known to the public of the northern European states. They were not told that the loans to Greece were not for bailing out Greeks but for bailing out European banks, as these loans simply financed debt repayments.  With each loan, the debt increased further, forcing more loans on condition that the country privatizes its resources, destroys its social state, throws people into unemployment and poverty.  All of which shrink the economy decreasing the country’s ability to service its debt and pay its creditors, forcing it to borrow even more conditional bailout money, further increasing its debt and accelerating austerity and so on and so forth; a vicious cycle that is leading to the third worldization of the European periphery countries.

This was the EU against which Syriza campaigned and won.

But make no mistake, Syriza does not want to leave the Eurozone, it was elected on a clear anti-austerity mandate after 5 long years of Greek economic depression unprecedented in times of peace.  Nevertheless, Syriza has been clear that it wants another Europe, a democratic Europe, in which people and not financial institutions are in the drivers’ seat.  It has made no secret of this and supports all other European political forces who want a democratic, solidaristic, social, sustainable, peoples’ Europe.  It is this that the European establishment finds unacceptable, not whether its current budget surplus will be 1.5% or 3%. It is precedents that the European establishment is worried about.  If Syriza succeeds what will the other systemic governments of the European periphery say to their own constituents.  There was supposed to be no other alternative.  This is especially true for Spain where a conservative government is facing the rise of Syriza’s ally, Podemos.  Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced in parliament that the Spanish Prime Minister was working hard behind the scenes to torpedo any type of non-austerity arrangement.

In an interview on a popular TV political talk show, Ston Eniko hosted by Nikos Hatzinikolaou, Panos Kammenos, leader of Syriza’s junior coalition partner, Anel (Independent Greeks) and Defense Minister, admitted that “they don’t want an agreement!”  Kammenos explained that Varoufakis meets with European officials, proposes and negotiates a series of reforms, the officials agree, then three days later 25 more points of discussion are emailed to the Greek government. This has been the modus operandi of the European officials since the February 20, 2015 truce.  No matter how many reforms Varoufakis presents to these officials, they are unacceptable as they are not austerity reforms.  The Greek government has been working hard showing that it can increase revenue by tackling corruption, tax evasion and off shore accounts.  It has provided clear number crunching evidence that its measures would be far more efficient for increasing government revenue than privatizations, pension cuts and other austerity measures which are destroying the Greek economy and torturing the population in the midst of an EU engineered humanitarian crisis.  Greece has been coming to the table with viable plan, after viable plan thinking it would get sensible responses but it has realized that the goal of the European establishment is to make the Government of the Left bend and follow orders.  The political plan is austerity; it has nothing to do with economic data, it has everything to do with who wields economic power.  Syriza and its junior partner’s unpardonable sin is that they have stood up to this establishment.

It is precisely for this reason, that Left activists in and outside of Europe need to pay attention to and build solidarity with the Greek government.  The success of Syriza will be the first crack in the totalitarian neo-liberal hegemony of the North Atlantic region.  The European establishment fully understands this and Left activists around the world need to as well.

This is why the European institutions are deliberately hurting the Greek economy; Greece is facing major cash flow problems as it has yet to receive a single Euro and needs to continuously make debt repayments. It made another payment to the IMF on April 9, 2015 of 450 million Euros, but more on that later.  This cash flow crisis is making it difficult for the Greek government to meet its payroll, provide pensions, education, health care etc.  In essence, Syriza’s capacity to govern is being seriously and probably illegally undermined (based on European multilateral agreements).

No one needs to wonder whether or not the Greek elite have been working hand in hand with the European establishment.  They risk losing a lot.  Syriza plans to audit the recent bailout agreements in order to find out if there was any wrongdoing in which politicians or big business leaders benefited from the destruction of the Greek economy.  Syriza’s reform list includes measures from making the tax system more just to stamping out tax evasion and offshore accounts.  These reforms are a direct affront against Greek oligarchs.  Syriza is preparing to overhaul the state apparatus and tackle the nexus between the establishment parties, the media, the state bureaucracy and large private interests.  But like the European establishment, the Greek establishment will not easily give up.

As such, they are looking to destabilize this government so as to break it up.  First they tried to build a wedge between Syriza and its coalition partner Anel.  The media was trying to paint Anel as a far right party, Syriza MP Costa Lapavitsas wrote in an article that Anel “is a nationalist party that speaks for broad sections of grassroots conservatism, and they have consistently opposed the disastrous policies of austerity. Indeed, with regard to Greece’s national debt, its position might even be considered to the left of Syriza.”  Now, the media is making it seem that Syriza is in internal chaos.  Syriza is a multi-tendency Left party with internally recognized factions that speak their mind freely.  Debates are brought to plenums, votes are taken and positions are announced.  The media has been trying to build a wedge between the current leadership and the Left Platform faction, led by government Minister Panagiotis Lafazanis. In fact, the differences between the current leadership and the Left Platform are mainly strategic not ideological.  The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz went so far as saying that Syriza should expel its more radical Left flank, and form a new government with the more responsible systemic centrist parties, To Potami (a media creation masquerading a citizens’ movement) and even the once powerful Pasok now reduced to a rump.  This was an unprecedented intervention of a European official into the internal affairs of a member state.  No one can doubt, that the European establishment sees Greece as a debt colony and that the pro-establishment parties like ND, Pasok and To Potami see themselves as vassals.

Yet, the destabilization tactics do not stop there.

When Syriza came to power, it immediately got rid of the barricades that surrounded the Parliament building and announced that it was going to close down the type C jails where many anarchists are held as well as scrap the draconian anti-terror laws.  Syriza activists were involved in many of the street demonstrations of the last years that were met with riot squads, teargas and police brutality.  Nevertheless, there have been odd occupations in recent weeks by small groups of anti-authoritarian activists of Syriza’s headquarters and the offices of the left alternative radio station it owns, Sto Kokkino, with demands that Syriza move on issues it already has announced it will move on.  Moreover, Sto Kokkino has been a leading voice in reporting state repression against anarchists, left activists and migrants.  When a small group of anarchists raised banners on the steps of parliament, the Syriza Parliamentary President, Zoe Konstantopoulos, in the face of inflammatory calls by the opposition to crack down on the “terrorists”, refused to send in the riot police and defended the right of citizens to protest and dissent.  So why is Syriza being targeted?  It has long been known that many of the most violent elements in protests and demonstrations, known as Koukoulofori (hooded ones) have been agents provocateurs on the payroll of the riot squads, called MAT for  Units for the Reinstatement of Control, a group that Syriza plans to dissolve.  The presence of Nazis, fascists and right wing fanatics in the police force has been a reality in Greece, since the collaborationists were absorbed into the para-state apparatus after the German retreat in WWII in order to hunt down the Left wing guerrillas that liberated the country.  Some of these para-state elements, have infiltrated many radical left and anarchist groups, one may suspect that these last actions have been encouraged and prodded by reactionary elements within the police who are worried about Syriza’s commitment to purge the Nazi and fascist presence within the Greek gendarmerie (in the 2014 euro-elections, 50% of police officers voted for Golden Dawn).

Syriza also faces a potential threat within the Greek state bureaucracy. In a system of rampant nepotism and clientelism, many in the higher echelons of the state apparatus, have been placed there by the formerly big but still establishment parties, ND and Pasok.  Their loyalties lie with the power brokers, the Greek and European establishment.  Syriza’s more radical proposals of making the state more open, transparent and participatory may face pushback and even sabotage from this sector.  With the possibility of many inconvenient truths coming out of audits of the bailout agreements since 2010, in addition to breaking up the cartel between state technocrats, politicians and private interests, many in the state hierarchy may want to see this government go.  In such an antagonistic environment, certain ministries would need to rely more on the people they brought in rather than on the state functionaries. Forcing the small team of political attaches to take on greater loads of work from fear of leaks and sabotage from a potential internal enemy.

The Syriza government faces great adversity of a European and Greek economic, political and technocratic machinery that is firmly in the hands of a powerful establishment. This is what’s going in Greece.

But Syriza does have a card up its sleeve, the Greek and European people.

Syriza needs to explain its strategy and its situation in clear terms so that ordinary Greeks and Europeans can fully understand the situation; this is the only way to build solidarity and to deepen support.  The European establishment has been shocked at Syriza’s resolve.  They are not used someone not following orders.  Syriza was shocked at how nonsensical the demands of European officials have been.  Their strategy should not be to add more water to their red wine, but to move further to the left, they need to meet intransigence with firmer determination.  This is the only road to deepen support.  Each time Syriza has shown firmness and courage their polls have shot up dramatically, and people took to the streets to tell their government not to back down.  Popular support in Greece may inspire popular support in other cities in Europe and elsewhere where people are fighting the same neo-liberal class assault. International solidarity will be a determining factor as there is already solidarity between the powerful of Europe against a government of the Radical Left.

So what will Syriza do in its fight against the machine?

The question keeps coming up: will Syriza leave the euro?  Syriza does not want to leave the euro and in fact, does not want this conversation to be about the euro, it wants it to be about what kind of Europe do we want: a Europe in which economic institutions are there to service people or a Europe in which people are there to service economic institutions?  The debate on the euro is a distraction to this more fundamental question.  Syriza believes that economic institutions should be under the control of people.  This is anathema to the European establishment.

Therefore, Syriza, being the only party of the Left and the only non-systemic party to head a European government, needs to navigate a very delicate path and it seems that it is doing just that.  To the outcry of the European “partners” and officials, Tsipras was in Russia on April 8th (a day before the IMF debt payment) and met with Putin.  Tsipras explained that Greece was not seeking a Russian solution, but that it is a sovereign state and not a debt colony with the right to make its own economic agreements all the while respecting the rules of the multilateral agreements it is party to.   Syriza has been doing the same with China, the Middle-East, Latin America and even the US.  It is seeking to find short financial supplements to provide a little breathing space in the tight box its “partners” have placed it in.

There was an underlying message to meeting with Putin the day before the IMF payments were due.  The IMF of course, is under US authority. By going to Russia and signing various economic and social cooperation projects Greece simply reminded the US and Europe of its geostrategic significance.  It also met its payment to the US showing the real Global power that it will play nice.  Syriza is trying to position itself in such a way as to remind its NATO friends that kicking it out of the Eurozone is not in the geostrategic interest of the US.

Syriza is part of a long tradition in the Greek Left, that has learned from its history not to hope for a Russian savior.  Russia has its own imperial interests.  The nonagenarian Syriza MEP, Manolis Glezos, lived through the Greek Civil War, where partisans waited in the mountains for Soviet planes to come to their rescue.  Of course, such planes never came.  Moreover, Syriza is not trying to replace one hegemon for another, it is trying to expand its cage, inspiring others to follow suit.  Needless to say, if Greece is brought to the precipice of a Grexit, one could assume that the US will step in and avoid losing an important line of communication to the Middle-East for what is trivial amounts of money by IMF and ECB standards.  There already has been some hints from the US and the IMF that Greece needs some expansionary policies, therefore, one can guess that Obama may finally broker an agreement.  Syriza knows this and this is why it will continue paying the IMF.  As for its European creditors, well, it depends.

If the EU and ECB creditors continue to tighten the noose around Greece’s neck and demand that the Greece continue to bleed its population and sell off its property and resources, refusing sensible but non-recessionary economic reform plans, and holding out on cash flow until it surrenders, then the Greek government will simply hold out on paying back its debt repayments to the European creditors and instead meet its payroll, education, health and other requirements.  Kammenos said as much on that same talk show.   Syriza’s argument is that there is no mechanism to kick Greece out of the euro and if the European institutions consider Greek holding back on payments until it receives its next tranche of loans as a default well then a bankruptcy within the euro would mean that the entire debt Greece owes will be written off.  The Syriza lead government has been able to meet its debt payment requirements without any new loans all the while continuing to pay for its internal requirements.  This of course, is no way to live as the state is in a socially dire situation but there is no reason to make things even worse with more austerity measures.

A clash between the Greek government and the European establishment is drawing nearer. Syriza’s battle against neo-liberal hegemony deserves our support and solidarity.

Tom Vouloumanos is part of the ZSchool faculty and teaches a course on Syriza’s history and prospects for social transformation.

A version of this article originally appeared on Telesur.