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So what’s really happening in Greece?

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Guest post by Guy Rundle

Down Stadiou Street the march turned, from Syntagma (Constitution) Square, in the centre of Athens. There were about five to ten thousand, young and old, workers and students, and a thousand banners and flags, most bearing the phrase Γ Γ .ΓŒΓ… (militant worker army). Headed to Omonia, near Exarchia and the old Athens Polytechnic, emotional heart of the Greek Left. It was militant, it was unified, it was uncompromising. ‘They are at war with us, so we are at with them’, said one Communist leader of George Papandreou’s PASOK government. For anyone from the tepid politics of the anglo world, it was pretty damn impressive.

And it was widely judged to be a fizzer.

‘They didn’t fill Syntagma’ one political-watcher remarked afterwards, in an Exarchia cafe. ‘They should have filled it several times over!’ He was a PASOK supporter, so not unbiased, but the sentiment was widely aired. So what’s really happening in Greece?

Masa Station protest

On Wednesday 10 February, the Greek Left – the Communist Party (KKE), and the smaller Left coalition, SYRIZA – had called out their supporters to rally against the proposed series of cuts in wages and conditions of the public service proposed by Prime Minister George Papandreou. A larger rally had also been called by the Public Service Union, but as it’s a fairly conservative outfit, the Left had decided on solidarity at a distance.

For the Left, which holds 34 seats in the 300-seat parliament and has wide public support, Papandreou’s recent series of proposals mark a rallying point at which the imperialist nature of the EU and the euro can be made clear to the public, and a resistance stirred. They were occasioned by the country’s financial crunch in 2009, itself a product of the 2008 GFC. Running large deficits for years (and cooking the books to avoid EU censure), Greece was caught out by a post-GFC rise in interest rates. In 2009, the centre-right New Democrat party government called an election after two years, effectively giving up, hoping it would lose by 2–3% and leave PASOK the hard task of restructuring capitalism.

It was a disastrous miscalculation. The swing to PASOK was nearly 10%, giving them 170 seats to the New Democrats’ 90, and dominance of the political field. George Papandreou, raised in Berkeley California, and the son and grandson of prime ministers, took control of the crisis. Initially playing down reports that the country might default on its debts, he changed strategy at the Davos conference in January, telling the EU that Greece was the ‘weak link’ in the euro project – adapting the language from the KKE’s view of the country’s role in European capitalism (itself of course adapted from Lenin’s remarks on Russia).

The move was partly designed to win financial support from the EU, but its larger purpose was to deal with resistance from trade unions and the public to Papandreou’s proposed, which included wage freezes and cuts, a raising of the retirement age, and across-the-board cuts to public spending. With the public debt running at 130% of GDP, the measures have been something that various governments have been trying to get through for decades.

This time around, they may succeed. Though a section of the public – about a quarter of the urban population, and large sections of the countryside – has suffered from Greece’s entry to Europe and the euro, chiefly in the form of rising prices, for the economy as a whole it has brought more than fifteen years of solid and visible growth. For much of this time it was run by the centre-right, and PASOK only won mass support when it abandoned the nationalist democratic socialism of the 1980s, (under Papandreou’s father), for a pro-European stance.

The move has gained PASOK support from both the broad populace, and a swathe of the intellectual Left, who hitherto supported Synapsismos, the pro-Europe Communist party, who split from the KKE decades ago, and who now comprise the bulk of the SYRIZA left coalition group. Papandreou has come out strongly in favour of immigration and of social rights for gay men and lesbians.

In doing so, it has exposed the problems for the Left in articulating an alternative vision of society that is less than the full transformation of capitalism. The KKE’s place in Greek society is hallowed – the core of anti-Nazi resistance, banned for three decades, anti the Colonels, anti-NATO – and its account of Greece’s role has been well-worked out: part of the periphery of Europe, any drawing into the wider circle of the EU and the euro is simply an example of further underdevelopment of the periphery by the centre.

But such a critique presupposes an alternative model of development, and the collapse of both the Eastern bloc, and of PASOK’s 80s program has made one scarce. The euro has done what such things usually do – exacerbated inequality, but also drawn large numbers into the circuit of capital. Athens, a dusty and dowdy city until the 90s, gleams with post-Olympic urban regeneration, and streets of glam chain stores. The aura fades around eight blocks or so from the centre, but the attractions are real enough.

Greece protests

For Synapsismos, the first pro-European Greek party, the shift is particularly piquant. Papandreou, who stared down the PASOK old guard by resigning his leadership during Opposition, and then recontesting it, has effectively transplanted much of their argument to the heart of his party. The party can justly say that the EU/euro – with its unelected central bank dictating policy – is not the social Europe they had in mind in the 1970s. But as it’s the only Europe on offer, their critique of PASOK, and their strong association with the now-abated anti-globalisation movement of the 2000s has left Synapsismos with no clear message to give.

But their problems are nothing compared to the KKE, whose Leninism was reinforced by the departure of Synapsismos in the first place. On the one hand, they may be in a position to gain some support from the spectacle soon to take place – ECB regulators poring over Greece’s financial records like administrators over a bankrupt company, and an effective surrender of Greek sovereignty over its own economic policy to the EU as a condition of being bailed-out (or gaining guarantees for its repayments). They can charge that the crisis does not originate from an inefficient public service and dodgy finances, as much as it does from the huge interest rates Greece now has to pay on its loans, product of the financial markets talking up the prospect of a Greek default in late 2009.

Yet absent of any other model of development aside from international financing, many Greeks – including many who would have been left nationalists a generation ago – appear willing to accept whatever conditions Europe dishes out. Entry into the eurozone made capital cheaper, and so the change in Greek everyday life was rapid and noticeable for many. The KKE’s manifesto on its website is out of another era, angrily defending the developmental record of the USSR, and reflecting at length on the nature of need and desire, work, labour and life activity. Everyone else – well, those who can afford it – is shopping at Marks and Spencers.

But the Left’s turn may yet come – and that is what makes Greece so fascinating. Papandreou’s decision to use the metaphor of the ‘weak link’ in affirming a positive vision of European capitalism was a canny way of preventing it being used against him, and soon. For the plain fact is that the form of development that euro-isation promoted has been uneven in the extreme, emphasising consumption and doing damage to core export industries and tourism through price rises.

If Greece is now restructured – ie has an austerity program imposed – by the ECB, then the economy as a whole will be deflated, while consumption continues, exacerbating inequality, and detaching many people from the smooth PASOK vision. Whether the beneficiaries of that would be the KKE, or the hard-right anti-immigrant Orthodoxy Party remains to be seen. If Greece is simply a laggard on an existing European trajectory, it is more likely to be the latter.

However, the KKE is betting that this isn’t the case, and that the ‘weak link’ argument is more than mere rhetoric. If they’re correct then Greece is not on the European trajectory to a post-political malaise, but a point at which the contradictions of a consumer-reliant orientation of development, a reliance on finance capital, come into contact with a populace that has not yet lost its conception of class contradiction, and suspicion of the state.

Indeed, it is this aspect of Greece that Papandreou is playing up – Greece as the unpredictable wildman, the Zorba of Europe, all the while believing that it is not the case, that it has been tamed. Central to this were the days of demonstrating, occupation and rioting that consumed the country in December 2009, after the death of a 15 year old, Alexander Grigoropoulous, shot by police in Exarchia. The demonstrations and the killing itself had numerous facets, not least a major generational divide in the country, which has a soaring youth unemployment rate (around 25%), while many in an earlier generation enjoy the projected jobs that are contributing to the current deficit – and enjoying the new fruits of consumption in the euro economy. But the events were discontinuous with the wider struggle, rejected by some on the left as a disorganised tantrum.

That’s certainly the belief of Constantinos Tsoukalas, the pre-eminent political theorist, who has a mordant view of the December 2009 events as the passing of organised politics, not its new spark. He told the UK Guardian that he saw the uprising as:

a symptom of the end of political hope and the beginning of something else. One of the nefarious consequences of the end of the Cold War and the emptiness of the global market that was supposed to put an end to ideology but, in crisis, has instead created this moment of great ideological tension.

I mean look at the spectacle of these politicians: this Greek government and every other government – though perhaps Obama is an exception – lurching from day to day without a clue what to do apart from babble. Not only does the Greek government have no plan, it does not even pretend to have a plan. What they are demonstrating – Karamanlis, Berlusconi, Blair, Brown, Sarkozy – is that there is no longer any reason to go into politics apart from power in and of itself, the money that power brings and the further money that having been in power brings. They degenerate the game with greater and greater visibility, and the more they degenerate it, the more degenerate the people who go into politics. Which leads to moral indignation, despair and anger, and … various forms of depression, as in [the UK], or to a statement of presence – a loud NO! as happened here, and a maelstrom.

What sort of trajectory Greece is going to take may become clearer on 24 February, when the country has a 24-hour general strike. Should it prove disappointing, Papandreou will be further emboldened to offer the EU further concessions and further cuts. But even a disappointing turnout would not necessarily suggest that the process is at an end. Most Greeks believe that financial restructuring has to occur, but the degree to which they will accept a takeover of their national financial sovereignty – by the Germans of all people – remains to be seen. In the place where History, as the conscious process of unfolding, meaningful temporality began, it is far from being at an end.

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