The referendum and the momentum

There are times when history moves at a glacial pace. We seem caught in an eternal present, each day part of an interchangeable series. At other times, history leaps suddenly into gear, each day bringing some new twist and revelation, some new event that reveals things in a new light. Historical temporality is not uniform.

For the last year or more, history has raced ahead in Greece. The impressive victory of the ‘No’ campaign in yesterday’s referendum is the latest significant moment. Forged in the shadow of a banking crisis, with Europe’s political establishment against them, around 60% of Greek voters reaffirmed once more their anti-austerity stance.

And yet, the consequences of the ‘No’ victory remain unclear. Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza leadership have claimed they can now negotiate a better bailout deal with ‘Europe’. True to their strategy all along, for them it seems the referendum was a negotiating tactic to ensure a negotiated settlement with the institutions of the EU. Yet from the first moments of the Syriza government, this strategy has been a failure. From the beginning, the leadership around Tsipras were caught in a strategic cul-de-sac, which reflected the views of the majority of the Greek people: they were elected on an anti-austerity program and they wanted to remain within Europe. These have proved radically incompatible.

Across the table, they’ve faced a grim-faced and intransigent and European elite (led by the Germans) whose aim has been to destroy this new upstart by forcing them to accept the very policies they were elected to reverse. They knew full well that they could not have Syriza as an example for the rest of Europe, Spain first and foremost. They knew that if they could force Syriza to accept the austerity program, then demoralisation would sweep through the European left. These events are all the more extraordinary considering how modest Syriza’s platform is. They rose to power proposing a series of moderate social democratic policies . It’s a measure of just how dominant neoliberalism has become in the EU that this has been unpalatable to the elites, especially the dreaded ‘Troika’ – the International Monetary Fund, European Union and European Central Bank. Rather than recognise that these were not allies but enemies, Tsipras and his collaborators have shown themselves (most obviously in the February deal; for an analysis see Stathis Kouvelakis’s piece in Jacobin ) prepared to jettison their program to ensure there is no ‘Grexit.’

If Tsipras and his collaborators faced an intransigent elite, they have also been held in place by a powerful left, both within and outside their own party. Born out of the anti-austerity struggle by a coalition of small groups, Syriza has been a relatively open organisation that embraced a significant section of the radical left. It is what some would call a ‘workers’ party’ or ‘broad left party’, a phenomenon that has emerged to varying degrees of success and failure, especially in Europe, over the last fifteen years. Indeed, the success of Syriza shows just how successful a strategy of alliances or coalitions, built around a clear anti-austerity program, can be in the context of social crisis. Because it is such a new formation, Syriza has suffered none of the bureaucratic degeneration – the rise of managerial careerists, the increasing disconnect from their traditional constituencies, the hollowing out of internal democracy – that has engulfed every former social democratic party on the continent – parties which now, one and all, embrace neoliberalism. Rather, its leaders are relatively inexperienced and not part of the political class that is so ubiquitously abhorred. Syriza embraced activists who had toiled away in relative obscurity for years. Some of these envisaged that Greece would become an organising centre for the rest of Europe. After all, this was ‘our chance’.

For these reasons, Syriza became the terrain of struggle for the left in Greece: the debates within the organisation were the only ones that really mattered. The groups that remained outside the party – the coalition Antarsya and the powerful KKE (Communist Party) – have in the recent times been practically irrelevant. Their abstention from Syriza was not only a serious error for themselves, but critically weakened the left of the party and helped the leadership’s moderate stance. Still, the left inside Syriza remains powerful, and are a vital bulwark against any fatal compromise by the Tsipras leadership.

Caught between these two forces – the neoliberal EU institutions and a combative Left – the Tsipras leadership called the referendum to reinforce their position, unlocking a social movement that has been dormant for six months. In periods of stability, people tend to lead private lives. Economic and political crises drag people into politics, force them to take positions and to have opinions. In the face of a crisis engineered by the EU institutions, in the face of right-wing media hysteria, popular power proved decisive. Its most important manifestation was the immense ‘No’ rally in Syntagma square on 3 July, but the activity of activists on the ground should not be forgotten. It is also important to note, though, that Tsipras’s speech at the rally was filled with generalities and platitudes. Though an excellent public speaker, he had little to say about what the vote would mean or the policy he would pursue.

What will happen now? Will the EU institutions finally propose a palatable compromise? If so, will the Syriza leadership accept it? Or will the standoff begin once more, in conditions of heightened crisis? How much stronger will Syriza’s left platform become after this eruption of popular power? What will their attitude be?

The speed of events is vertiginous, and from afar many of the important factors are difficult to judge. Particularly absent in much discussion has been any assessment – a materialist analysis, if you like – of the forces at play in the Greek situation. How large is the active is the Syriza membership? How does democracy work within the organisation? How large is its left platform? What are the most widely read publications in Greece? What are their distributions? Which organisations are growing, which shrinking? Without an accurate assessment of these, any predictions would be futile.

So we are forced to wait and watch, knowing that Syriza is perhaps the most important event for the European left in a generation. This is the first government in thirty years to break with the neoliberal consensus that had embraced every major party. For the poor and exploited, brutalised by thirty years of neoliberalism, Syriza has been a sign that things might be done differently. It’s a serious break not just from neoliberalism as an economic policy, but the political project that goes along with it, which affirms individualism, which rides roughshod over civil and political rights. Hand in hand with privatisation and deregulation goes state repression, spying on one’s own citizens, the elimination of dissent, the rewriting of history, the marginalisation of women’s rights, the scapegoating of refugees, the exploitation of the environment – all the policies we have become only too familiar with in Australia.

The stakes are high. The defeat of the anti-austerity project would mean a defeat for the people of the northern social democracies, whose welfare states are increasingly under threat; a defeat for those in France, whose progressives are fighting an insurgent far right; it’s a defeat for the right in Spain who had hoped to emulate a Greek rejection of left solutions. On the other hand, a victory for the anti-austerity project would show its effects across the world. Greece would be an example and perhaps also the organising centre left activists have hoped for. There are times when history doesn’t just speed up, but when the future becomes condensed within a particular nation-state. Our futures are currently in the hands of the Greeks. How things develop will have an affect on all of us.


Image: linmtheu / flickr

Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Hmm …

    From what I gather of this very bizarre Greek referendum …

    It’s kinda like a teeming beach-load of sweaty twenty-something backpackers, who’ve just come back from a long round-the-world sojourn, have held a “vote” to declare that …

    Nup, they don’t want to repay the thousands and thousands of dollars they borrowed from mum and dad during their holiday when they were robbed in South Backpackerstan while shitfaced on acid and green tea, but …

    they DO want to keep on living under their parents roof.

    Not sure how amenable Mama Merkel is going to be that idea.

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