Last week, Syriza entered into bailout extension negotiations with its European partners. The outcome that it emerged with has largely been seen as a failure. For the next four months, the ‘bailout’ will continue, meaning that, at least for now, Syriza will have neither the funds nor the policy room to achieve its Thessaloniki Programme. But this failure, however substantial, is neither permanent nor total, and within it there are lessons for the Left in Australia.
Before touching on this most recent development, however, it is worth examining other aspects of Syriza’s rise which are relevant to the situation in Australia, particularly so given that it was in circumstances that would typically favour the far-right’s politics of blame and reprisal. The first and most obvious of these aspects is the way in which the election of Syriza disrupted the Australian Right’s narrative about the causes of the depression in Greece.
Joe Hockey, for one, has enjoyed using the dire economic situation in Greece as a type of morality tale, a parable from which Australia should learn. Hockey has claimed that Australia is ‘living beyond its means’, and will soon reach a ‘tipping point’, and that we ‘must heed the modern lessons that highlight the risk to countries which live far beyond their means’. The LNP, and those whose interests they represent, present Greece’s circumstances as nothing more than the inevitable result of a profligate enjoyment of economic and social rights.
The Greek people’s resistance to austerity and their election of Syriza disrupts this ridiculous, pseudo-religious narrative of excess being met with punishment and expunged through sacrifice.
Instead of being the subjects of moralising, the Greek people asserted their agency. One thing, therefore, that the Australian Left should learn from the rise of Syriza is that the Right’s narratives when it comes to economic crises (and other issues) are just that- narratives. Hence, they are vulnerable, and can be overturned.
In times of economic insecurity, it is often the far-right parties that gain ground – for a recent example, one need only look at France’s National Front – and indeed, in Greece’s first post-crisis election in May 2012, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn’s vote surged by 6.7%. A significant section of the Greek electorate were susceptible to the fascists’ position: that the suffering of the Greek people was the fault of recently arrived migrants rather than the result of a broken economic system.
Concerning though this progress was, at the same election Syrzia saw its vote increase by 12.2%. Furthermore, in the two elections that have since taken place, Syriza’s vote has continued to move upwards and have allowed it to form government. Meanwhile, Golden Dawn’s appeal has flatlined. Syriza’s rise has prevented Golden Dawn’s surge, and in this, there is surely a lesson for the Left in other nations, particularly Australia. Once a populace tunes out of the mainstream political establishment, they will be open to alternatives, and stepping into the space that opens in such moments is not the exclusive province of the populist Right. In voting Syriza into government, the Greek people have responded to a coalition of diverse left and radical left groups. If there is a viable Left alternative, people will rally to it.
For the Right, and for capital more broadly, this is a worrying prospect. Syriza’s election is a dangerous precedent that could reintroduce democracy back into the European economy. The true audience for last week’s ‘bailout’ extension negotiations were surely not the leaders of Syriza but the Greek people and the people of Europe. As the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said of the bailout deal, ‘The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time to explain the deal to their voters’. Those participating in the negotiations wanted to demonstrate to the voters of Greece (and Europe) that economic power will remain unchanged, no matter which political party is in government.
However, it would be an error to see the result of the ‘bailout’ negotiations (and the very word ‘bailout’ disguises the violence in what is a white-collar replay of the Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople) as an absolute failure. That it was a substantial setback, and disappointing for those who hope to see Syriza succeed, is undeniable. Recognising that, for the moment, the Greek people have a degree of disruptive power, Europe’s elite have offered some gains, however temporary and insufficient they may be. For 2015, the Greek government will not have a specific surplus target but instead the ability to respond to changing ‘economic circumstances’. This provides a window for increased social spending. In addition, Syriza has won greater autonomy in being able to propose economic reforms rather than have them imposed. Thus, a greater burden on funnelling capital out to the European institutions will fall on the Greek elite. Even in a failed clash, the Greek people are teaching us that resistance wins results.
For the Left in Australia, there are several things to take from the most recent challenges Syriza has faced. Firstly, that failure is not catastrophic. It is not clear, not yet at least, how Syriza and Greece will respond to the outcome of the negotiations, but it would be a serious error to assume this is the end. For Syriza and the wider Greek Left a short term failure can be an opportunity to learn, change strategy and continue to work to alter the power balance for the next confrontation.
Secondly, the Australian Left needs to learn to fail better like our Greek comrades. Anyone in the Australian Left who would write Syriza off would be wise to recognise that we are far from being in the position of power or relevance necessary to fail in the manner that they have.
I say ‘we’, deliberately, because it brings me to the final and perhaps most important thing: the Left in this country can learn from the example of Syriza’s rise and the difficulties it has encountered. Syriza did not come to power because of a few powerful individuals or a charismatic leader. They came to power because disparate groups within the Left in Greece were able to set aside their differences and organise together. They came to power because of the rallies, protests, strikes, occupations and assemblies that took place in the years leading up to the election in January this year.
Greece should teach us that we cannot wait around for the next Gough Whitlam or an Australian Alex Tsipras. It is up to us to spark the flame of resistance. It is our duty to work together to create a social base ready to struggle for progressive economic change, and to create the conditions in which leaders with the potential to inspire others to believe in change, and to take action to achieve it, can emerge. As Kafka wrote, ‘the Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary.’