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Many on the left have been recently condemning Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipris and the Syriza government leadership for their “betrayal” of the Greek people who voted overwhelmingly (61.5 percent) against further austerity measures in the recent referendum. Immediately afterwards the leadership seemed to execute an about-face by accepting even worse austerity than they had rejected previously. These left critics have also been quick to condemn Syriza for “naïvely” thinking that its creditors were really open to negotiations – that they could be swayed by rational arguments and moral considerations.
Yet the conclusions of betrayal and naïvete, although they might seem to contain some truth, fail to take into consideration that the Syriza leadership was placed in an impossible position by the Greek electorate. On the one hand, the Greek people clearly rejected austerity; on the other hand, at the same time even more (75 percent) wanted to stay in the eurozone. This is why Tsipris kept repeating in the lead-up to the referendum that the vote was not about leaving the eurozone. And it is why some of Greece’s creditors, who were trying to manipulate a yes vote, kept insisting that a no vote meant leaving.
As a party that claims to represent the majority of the population – the working class – Syriza would have been forced to violate the majority of its mandate if it had chosen to unilaterally reject the new austerity measures and leave the eurozone. Perhaps more importantly, it makes little strategic sense for a working class party to ignore the desires of its constituency and forcefully impose its will in contradiction to those desires.
Having the support of the population to leave the eurozone is especially crucial, given the immediate additional suffering that will be caused by such a rupture. As Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has argued, in the short run the effects will be painful. Consequently, the population must be prepared for this suffering and understand that in the long run they will be much better off, if the exit is to be successful.
Some have argued that Syriza should have been educating the Greek population in favor of an exit as soon as it took office. But as Yanis Varoufakis, former minister of finance has pointed out, had Syriza taken a public stand in favor of an exit, this could have been used against them in their negotiations with the creditors. It would have looked as if Syriza were not bargaining in good faith. And it might also have resulted in a loss of support among the Greek people, given their ardent attachment to the eurozone.
Having said all this, Greece is surely at the point where Syriza must place leaving the eurozone at the center of a public discussion. The new austerity measures being imposed on Greece will undoubtedly have the same effects as austerity measures in the past: the economy will be pushed back into a recession, unemployment will rise and more people will go hungry. As Yanis Varoufakis has argued, these measures will fail. When the economy worsens, the Greek people will be increasingly open to re-evaluating their relation to the eurozone.
And many arguments support the alternative of exit as the best among bad options. By returning to the drachma, a much cheaper currency than the euro, the Greek economy will increase its competitive position in the world market, which will help revive its economy. Moreover, Paul Krugman has pointed out that most of the suffering that will accompany the return to the drachma is already behind the Greek people, who have been suffering depression-like conditions for the past several years. If Greece remains in the eurozone with its savage and irrational policies, Greece might be condemned to permanent depression.
Finally and most importantly, an exit at least will place the Greek people in control of their own destiny rather than under their creditor’s capitalist rule of blackmail and terrorism. With the Greek working class in control, they can reject austerity and proceed to redistribute wealth from the rich to the rest of the population, a principle Syriza included in its political platform and which it tried to implement but was stopped by its creditors. And the Greeks can do this with the support of Syriza: a majority of the Syriza central committee (109 out of 201) rejected this latest capitulation to austerity.
Greece should leave the eurozone, but the consent of the majority of the working class must be secured first.