Lessons From the Greek Crisis: There Must be Some Way Out of Here!

I first visited Greece in fall, 2010 to give two talks at a major anti-authoritarian festival in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city. Anti-authoritarians are a significant political current in Greece. They believe in and organize for anti-capitalism, direct democracy, building non hierarchical economic and social institutions, and confronting austerity. They are very suspicious of electoral politics and political parties. The anti-authoritarians are similar to anarchists here but are a larger proportion of the Greek population. I visited Greece in summer, 2103 where I participated in a conference on the commons and on anti-privatization struggles on an island called Ikaria. I just returned from four weeks in Greece, two weeks on the island of Ikaria and two weeks in Thessaloniki and Athens where my partner and I met with many groups challenging the ongoing economic crisis, many of whom I had met previously in my visits to Greece. In addition, we went to a demonstration in Athens on September 12th, 2015 part of a European wide demonstration in solidarity with refugees entering Europe, and to a large popular assembly in Athens organizing direct action in support of the 300,000 refugees who have entered Greece this year, 2/3 of whom are Afghani, and another one quarter are from Afghanistan and Iraq. They arrive mainly on small boats from Turkey to the Greek islands and then go on to Athens before leaving for other countries, mainly Germany and Sweden.

I will summarize the Greek political and economic crisis, how the Greek government including the “leftist” party in charge has acted and reacted, and how social movements are responding. I will conclude with the current situation and a few thoughts on future possibilities.

I was once again reminded how important what is going on in is Greece when a Vietnamese friend who was very involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement called me in July, 2015. He said, “Just like in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, organizing in solidarity with the Vietnamese people was the right and most important thing to do for people around the world interested in liberation and creating an alternative to U.S, capitalism and imperialism; and acting in solidarity with the revolutionary movements in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala was central and right in the 1980’s; today learning about and standing up in solidarity with the struggle against austerity and for an alternative in Greece is equally important.

Greece: Recent Past, Present and Possible Future!

Greece has been part of the European Union (EU) and most important for this article, the Eurozone since 2002. This means it is one of 19 nations who use the Euro as their currency; they cannot print their own money.

Greece is one of the poorer nations in the Eurozone and one of the more unequal ones. While in Greece, I wrote a friend in prison who asked me about Greece. I said its income per person today is similar to African-Americans in the United States although Greece’s average income was significantly higher five years ago.

On December 6th, 2008, 15 year old, Alexis Grigoropolous was killed by police while graffittiing in central Athens. In response, a rebellion erupted all over the country, mainly by youths. The underlying issues included high youth unemployment, increasing temporary and low wage jobs, the low quality of education, police harassment and with not a promising future. This activism and rebellion by youths sparked a larger rebellion which has continued. The December 2008 uprising is a major factor in the growth in Greece of an anti-authoritarian political current.

By 2010, because of the evasion of taxes, especially by higher income people, and a growing government deficit and debt, Greece had increasing problems financing its government deficit and in borrowing to pay its debt even at higher and higher interest rates. The Greek government signed its first austerity agreement in 2010, agreeing to cut wages in public sector jobs, lowering the minimum wage and making it easier to fire people, and raising taxes particularly those that affected poor and working class people. This is what is called austerity: balancing the government budget and lowering wages so that Greek goods would be cheaper to produce which would increase Greek exports and decrease imports and spur foreign firms to invest in Greece. In return for agreeing to these policies, Greece got a loan of 110 billion Euros (about $140 billion) at moderate interest rates. Most of these loans went to pay off private banks in Europe who had lent money to Greek businesses, Greek private banks and the Greek government. The loan was extended by the troika—the European Union (EU), the IMF and the European Central Bank (ECB)–who negotiated the agreement. In 2012, Greece got a second loan of 130 billion Euros ($160 billion dollars) in an economy of only 11 million people.

Austerity doesn’t work at least for the large majority of the population as reduced government spending and raising tax rates leads to less income for consumers who then cut back on spending, and also less spending by businesses on new equipment and on construction. These cutbacks increase unemployment. So income and therefore tax revenues fall further, meaning a continuing or growing government deficit requiring yet further tax increases. It is like a dog chasing its tail.

Note: Austerity policies have been followed in the U.S. although not as extremely as Greece but there are ongoing attempts to cut government spending here, especially for social programs and infrastructure at the Federal, State and local levels.

Austerity policies, similar to what have been called structural adjustment policies in Latin America and Africa since the late 1970’s have also been followed by Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Latvia and others with results almost as devastating as Greece. Greece today has over 25% unemployment and an unemployment rate of 60% for people under 25, rates equal to or worse than the 1930’s depression in the United States. These numbers do not begin to explain the devastation in the quality of life in Greece. Much of the employment is part-time with reduced benefits. Poverty is becoming the norm. There are severe cuts in pensions for older people and people are losing their homes in large numbers as they can’t pay the mortgages and the growing property and utility taxes.

The Rise of SYRIZA

In 2012, a relatively new political party, SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, campaigned on raising employment by increasing necessary government spending, ending privatization and government layoffs, and cancelling much of the debt owed by the Greek government to foreign lenders and also cancelling the debt of low income people. They came in a close second in the elections getting 27% of the vote where a few years earlier they had received only 4%. SYRIZA was a merger of various Greek groups including those active in the European and World Social Forum, Euro-communists, independent socialists, smaller Marxist groups, etc. The two major parties which had dominated Greek politics were compromised by their support for austerity. This was demonstrated by the sharp decline of PASOK, which has been the major party in Greece since the ending of the military dictatorship in 1974. A lesson for us in the United States is how quickly political parties that seem dominant like PASOK can rapidly decline. PASOK had claimed to be the major progressive party and an anti-austerity one. The same decline could happen to the   Democratic Party here. Austerity has been promoted in Greece and beyond by the international economic and financial institutions such as the IMF, by major banks and financial institutions, by the majority of mainstream economists in the U.S. and the rest of the world and by the mainstream media in Greece and globally.

What had excited me and gave me hope in Greece since I began studying and visiting it was a left political party, SYRIZA, that was connected to many of the social movements, e.g., the solidarity clubs, who are primarily poor people organizing to meet their needs. Also, SYRIZA has supported immigrant, women’s and labor rights. This combined with anarchists, autonomists and anti-authoritarians who were building alternative institutions such as the non-market production and distribution of needed goods and services, free health clinics social centers to meet and build community, creating book stores and alternate media, who were also involved in militant anti-austerity, anti-fascist and anti-mining actions, and who were putting direct democracy into practice seemed to have the potential to revolutionize Greece. To me, this inside–outside, electoral-social movement from below strategy was very promising and seemed to be growing in the period 2010-2014 even if both perspectives were somewhat critical of each other.

By late 2014, the continued decline in Greek national income, employment and tax revenues caused by the continuing austerity policies meant Greece again needed more loans to finance its deficit and its government debt, which was growing as a per cent of the declining national income. In addition most Greek banks were close to bankruptcy because of businesses and individuals not being to pay back the money they had borrowed. The ruling coalition government collapsed and new elections were called for January 25th, 2015.

In this election, SYRIZA ran on a strong anti-austerity although not an anti-capitalist program. It got a plurality of the vote, 36.3%, and under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras, formed a government in coalition with a small, nationalist and conservative but anti-austerity party. From January until the present, October 20th, 2015 most of the their energy has been put into negotiating with the Troika, the IMF, and the EU, especially the German government and the ECB for some debt relief and delays in repayment of the debt, and permission to increase government spending to stimulate employment. Little was done by the Greek government to improve the lives of Greek people or to deepen democracy. The negotiations were led in the winter and spring, 2015 by the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who was met by an unbending and neoliberal European Union who demanded even more cutbacks in government spending, especially of pensions for older workers, more privatization and further increases in taxes before they would extend new loans to Greece and help keep the Greek banks from collapsing.

No to Austerity But Then Yes!

In late June of this year, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for a referendum on whether Greece should accept the terms offered by the European Union and European Central Bank. He called for a No vote, for a no to the further austerity demanded by the European Union. In spite of a near unanimous mass media hysterically promoting a yes vote for austerity; claiming that a no vote and rejecting the European offer would spell economic collapse, over 61% of the Greek people stood up and voted NO on July 5, 2015. This was truly inspiring. Sadly and surprisingly even after this massive rejection of these austerity policies and proposed agreement, Prime Minister Tsipras and most of the SYRIZA leadership said they had no choice but to accept the new austerity package for the promise of a $95 billion bailout that they had campaigned so strongly against.

The European Union than demanded an even worse package than they had originally offered with even more privatization, more control over the Greek government and even larger increases in tax rates and bigger cuts in government pensions saying they would kick Greece out of the Eurozone if they didn’t accept their latest offer. The European Union made an ultimatum of take it or leave the Eurozone. The European Central Bank (ECB) had already stopped sending Euros or making loans to private Greek banks. Greek banks were close to collapsing. Alexis Tsipras then forced this new, even more restrictive deal through the Greek parliament saying Greek had no choice but to accept it even as he called it blackmail. It passed on July 13th, aided by the vote of the more conservative parties. Over 30 SYRIZA members of parliament voted no and formed a new party, Popular Unity, who called for not paying most of the government debt, stimulating the economy, ending the use of the Euro and creating a new Greek currency, the drachma, which was name of the previous currency.

After getting the Greek parliament to pass this new austerity legislation in spite of major protests and the no vote, Tsipras resigned and called for new elections which took place exactly a month ago.

Turnout was reduced from 64% in January, 2015 to 55% on September 20th although SYRIZA got almost the same percentage vote, 35.4% as they had in the January election. Turnout and enthusiasm for SYRIZA were sharply down but SYRIZA is in charge of the government again although the European Union has the real power. Popular Unity, the left split off led by Panagiotis Lafanzis, the former Environmental minister, got only 2.9% of the vote and did not qualify for the recently elected parliament. Hopefully Popular Unity will grow. It needs to connect more with grass roots movements and particularly those involved in building a survival economy such as barter groups and cooperatives.  Fortunately, the fascist party, Golden Dawn, and the recently formed yuppie oriented neoliberal party, POTAMI, the River, did not grow.

The Future of SYRIZA!

I hope I am wrong but think SYRIZA is hopelessly compromised by its accepting of more austerity after campaigning against it in the January 2015 election and again in the July referendum. I had hope for SYRIZA as a part of the solution a year ago. Its youth wing has now left the party, at least temporarily. It will be very hard for SYRIZA to regain people’s trust; even though it still has impressive individuals in it with a history of principled struggle and resistance. SYRIZA has not kept its word and its promises to oppose austerity; it has become another electoral, compromised political party. It is less corrupt than the other main parties in Greece and more concerned about the poor but SYRIZA has lost its way. It was afraid and unprepared to take the anti-austerity leap. Alexis Tsipras and the leadership of SYRIZA feared a collapse of the banks and the Greek economy. SYRIZA will probably go the opportunist way of other social democratic parties. At the very least to regain its legitimacy and progressive role would require strong and honest self-criticism of its turn to the right, the resigning of its leadership, a democratic internal structure, a repudiation of the austerity agreements and a commitment and practice to overturn the accompanying austerity legislation.

I think Greece should have left the Eurozone and ended the use of Euro as its national currency in combination with a program of not paying most of its debt, cancelling the debt of low income people, increasing public production, stimulating domestic production, especially in agriculture and food, taking over the private banks and creating public or community banks to support worker cooperatives and employment creating production. Controls over imports would have been necessary to balance exports as would have and preparing for the use of a new currency. In addition and probably most important, neither SYRIZA nor other groups did the necessary educational work with the Greek population to explain what these alternatives such as leaving the Eurozone would mean and why they are necessary. From my observation and reading several polls, the majority of the Greek people strongly opposes austerity but do not support leaving the Eurozone or the European Union. Without popular education, what is called Grexit, Greece replacing the Euro with its own currency and leaving the Eurozone, becomes another technocratic policy from the top. These alternatives presented in this paragraph will again be relevant in the not too distant future.

Many in SYRIZA and many other Greek activists and left academics outside of Greece believe Grexit would be an economic catastrophe. As an alternative they advocate for a European left united across countries that can challenge the European Union’s right wing economics; that Greece cannot go it alone. Their solution is a more progressive European Union. At the present time, there is not a strong European left capable of effectively challenging the right wing economics of the EU and Eurozone. Greece leaving the Eurozone and having its own money together with the other reforms mentioned could have been a start towards a new participatory socialist politics and economics.

The Future!

There is a lot of fear by the economic and political elites inside and outside of Greece, of Greece demonstrating in practice that there is an alternative to neoliberalism and capitalist globalization. That is why they the leaders of most countries of the European Union were so unwilling to compromise. Greece staying in the Eurozone means continued economic depression, maybe a little more slowly at first than if they had left, but guaranteed to last.

It is easy to take as a lesson from SYRIZA accepting this extreme austerity package without even a promise of large debt relief– that political parties will always sell out. I still believe it is necessary, desirable and possible to develop visionary and radical and democratic (small d) political parties rooted in people’s daily life and in social movements; ones that are feminist and ecological and have an electoral component and are willing to take risks. Rather political parties that are primarily or totally electoral, where winning elections and taking control of the government becomes their be all and end all that are politically and morally bankrupt.

There is a lot of despair right now in Greece but as recently deceased baseball player, Yogi Berra said, “It is not over until it is over”. This cynicism in Greece towards participation in collective social change and political activism has grown for most of the population. Increasing time and focus is being put into individual and family survival but not collective survival, towards increased work in the informal labor market, in struggling individually and together with one’s family to survive on declining incomes and pensions, to trying to keep one’s home or planning to emigrate to other countries such as Germany. The decline of hope is also true from what I observed of activists in SYRIZA who are deeply angered by both the lack of democracy in recent decisions by the SYRIZA leadership and by the decisions they have made. This pessimism is also shared by grass roots movements and activists, many of whom had hoped for more from SYRIZA after their victory in January. Optimism about the future of Greece has markedly decreased as has activism across the left and radical spectrum. One positive sign is that there is a lot of support in action for the hundreds of thousands of refugees entering Greece even if the popular ideology is less welcoming.

Hopefully, it is the temporary lull before the storm. There is no way that the SYRIZA led government can meet the European Union and European Central bank requirements of government surpluses by 2017 and even bigger requirements for a primary surplus in 2018. So there will be likely be new demands in the not too distant economic future by the EU and international economic powers for even further cutbacks in government spending and more selling off of Greece to the highest bidder. There is likely to be mass resistance, it is already beginning to grow as more and more as the austerity package is being voted on piece by piece at the time of this writing. This economic depression in Greece is likely to continue for the foreseeable future unless there are new social movements and political parties of a new type, such as I have described, building the power and the vision and strategy to cause transformative change combined with needed solidarity from people around the world. The latter has been lacking.

Greek working people and students have an inspiring history of resistance to dictatorship and fascism, e.g., in World War II against the Nazi occupation, to the military junta from 1967-1974, and to demonstrating, striking, organizing, rioting and voting against austerity and for a liberatory although unspecified alternative. It can and will happen again. Si Se Puede!

Peter Bohmer is a faculty member in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He has been an activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.