By Joseph Choonara
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Greece: It didn’t have to be this way

This article is over 7 years, 5 months old
The Troika has succeeded in imposing its will on the Syriza government for now, but other options were. And still are, available.
Issue 400

One of the most scathing responses to the deal struck between Greece’s radical left Syriza government and European finance ministers in February came from 92 year old Manolis Glezos. The former resistance fighter — famous for tearing the Swastika from the Acropolis in 1941 and now a Syriza MEP — compared the agreement to “renaming fish as meat”.

The hated Troika (the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank) is redubbed “the institutions” but retains the power to supervise Greece’s bailout programme. The Memorandum between the former Greek government and the Troika becomes the “agreement”. Behind the window dressing there can be no doubt that this represents a retreat from the pledges that helped Syriza win victory in January’s elections.

Of course, prime responsibility for the continued suffering of the Greek people rests with the Troika, those governing the major European states, and the Greek capitalists who colluded in creating the mess in the first place. And the suffering is astonishing. Half of young Greeks are unemployed. Education spending has fallen by a third. One million are below the poverty line. The suicide rate has risen 45 percent, still births by 21 percent. Far from the bailout being used to alleviate this humanitarian catastrophe, 90 percent of the money was handed straight back to the banks or to institutional lenders.

Syriza entered negotiations with a weak hand. On the day of the agreement €1 billion of bank deposits were transferred abroad. The Greek banking system teetered on the edge. Nonetheless, compromise was not the only possible outcome. Syriza could have stuck to its pledges in the hope that European finance ministers would cave in. The refusal by Germany’s finance minister to accept anything other than capitulation from Syriza effectively ruled out this possibility.

The German government feared that giving in would unravel the European-wide system of bailouts and austerity imposed since the crisis hit. This fear is reinforced by the rise of other anti-austerity parties, notably Podemos in Spain, where elections are set for December. The German government could therefore count on support from those of Portugal and Spain, whose opposition at home would be boosted if Syriza won.

However, even in the face of this intransigence, Syriza could have held firm and implemented its proposals unilaterally. In this case, the Greek government would have been forced to impose capital controls to stop money flooding out of the banks and to start creating its own currency to fund its activities. This would have triggered a Greek exit from the Eurozone, allowing Greece to default on its debt. It would have been painful, reducing the purchasing power of Greek workers and causing enormous economic dislocation.

But the pain could have been reduced by introducing social programmes under the control of workers to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Groups of Greek workers in areas such as healthcare and broadcasting have already demonstrated their immense ingenuity in this regard.

Unfortunately, breaking with the single currency was ruled out in advance by finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and prime minister Alexis Tsipras. That is why, once Germany raised the stakes, effectively saying, “Agree to our terms or leave the euro”, Greek negotiators capitulated.

This is not simply an ideological preference by the majority on the right wing of Syriza. The major Greek capitalists are overwhelmingly committed to European integration, seeing it as essential to securing Greece’s role as a regional power in the Balkans. Some on the left of Syriza reject this logic. But even they tend to see the party as fighting in two spheres — inside and outside parliament — while trying to weld the two struggles together.

But holding office under capitalism, which means presiding over a capitalist economy, can mean clashes with the aspirations of the movement in the streets and workplaces.

This is where the role of organisations such as the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK) and Antarsya, the coalition in which it participates, is important. Because these organisations are committed to a break with capitalism they can advocate the dramatic measures needed.

However, this does not mean a sectarian politics of abstract denunciation. Antarsya members have been especially active in union struggles and Greece’s anti-racist movement, activities that also draw in Syriza members and supporters. Such struggles can apply pressure on the government to hold firm and, potentially, can begin to impose their own solutions on society.

In four months time the deal will expire — assuming it survives till then. The “right” of the Troika to claw back the bailout money will again clash with the “right” of Syriza to govern according to its mandate. As Marx wrote, “Between equal rights, force decides.” The stronger the force that can be brought to bear in the workplaces and streets, and the stronger the anti-capitalist currents at the centre of these struggles, the more likely that this dismal deal will not be repeated.

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