The instruments of victory

‘they showed me the instruments’
– Brecht, Galileo

Paul Keating described his 1993 win as ‘the sweetest victory of all’. By that measure, Alexis Tsipras would be hovering on the edge of a diabetic coma. After six months of fraught and contested government, a referendum, a party split, and being written off in the polls, Syriza was returned to power with 35.5% of the vote – a 7% lead over the right-wing opposition New Democracy, and streets ahead of the former dominant centre-left party PASOK, somewhat recovered at 6%. Syriza’s win came after a series of polls – by now it should be obvious that public polling is useless – which put Syriza and New Democracy neck-and-neck, and a number of news features purporting to show how despised Syriza now was for making a bailout deal with harsh conditions attached. In the end it wasn’t even close – the public backed Syriza’s policy of staying in the euro and trying to get the least-worst deal possible.

The win is all the more declarative, because it occurred after Syriza split, with its ‘Left Platform’ group leaving to form the pro ‘Grexit’, pro new drachma Popular Unity, which was presumed to be a big headache for Tsipras – threatening to take his vote below that of New Democracy, or leave him with a bare edge in seats, and reliant on two or three more parties to form a governing Coalition. But PU suffered a disaster in the polls, falling below the 3% threshhold required to hold seats, leaving them with nothing – and nothing for an alliance of several left groups to hold together with.

The usual 20/20 hindsight is taking effect. Having been dismissed as a posturing, amateur klutz, Tsipras is now being cast as a political genius and model of leadership. The latter has more validity than the former ever did, but it’s an overstatement nevertheless.

To those left of the Syriza centre – and the bulk of Syriza’s vote is really PASOK, Greek Labour, in exile – Tsipras remains a wrecker, another turncoat or even false flag centrist who has taken the left for a ride. The last six months are rumoured to have cost him his marriage, his wife Peristera Batziana far more left-wing than he. Whatever the verdict on the decisions Tsipras made, he lost the left’s support when, after calling a snap referendum and getting a decisive ‘no’ to the EU’s second bailout ‘offer’, he turned around and accepted a third ‘offer’, with harsher conditions attached. The offer was a shocker, in terms of pension ceilings, a raised, regressive VAT tax, and forced privatisation, but it offered the largest amount of bailout cash and debt forgiveness yet. Right-wing press and financial papers constructed it as a defeat and humiliation for Tsipras. So, interestingly, did much of the Left, using similar language.

The calumny heaped on Tsipras was unrealistic. As leader he was in an impossible position. Syriza’s position – stay in the euro, refuse austerity – was always based on finding a partner for progress in the EU, someone who would recognise that tearing the country apart from on high would do the same to Europe on a grander scale. He didn’t get that. Instead it appears to have been made clear to Tsipras that the EU financial powers were willing to wreck Greece for the same reason that a bookie will have an indebted gambler killed – at some point, the loss is worth it, to deter others.

Greece, at 2% of EU GDP, could be sacrificed in order to let Spain and Italy know that the necessary measures would be taken should they falter. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that, in those final post-referendum meetings, he was ‘shown the instruments of torture’, a la Brecht’s Galileo, that great argument for compromise and survival. The referendum result gave pretty clear instructions: reject the second bailout ‘offer’, or any ‘offer’ like it. But Tsipras was also faced with the prospect of weeks more negotiations to no likely better result, in a situation where the European Central Bank had turned off the money supply. At that point, to refuse the third ‘offer’ was to commit to some form of alternative plan – most likely a parallel currency and a part IOU payment system for civil servants. That may not have been austerity, but it would have been deeper poverty – and many Greeks who’d voted for Syriza didn’t have a programmatic opposition to ‘austerity’ per se, but to impoverishment, unaffordable food, the lack of heating and medicines. There wasn’t the base support for a heroic refusal (though that might have emerged), and Tsipras knew that Syriza’s base was mixed between those who wanted the least-worst deal that would help them stay in, and those willing to take the hardship of a return to the drachma. He was also presumably conscious of imminent economic collapse in an import-export economy – crude oil in, refined oil out, steel for shipbuilding, tourism – with any interruption to supply.

The election result has clarified all this – although turnout was down, from 63% to 56%, a sign that a whole tranche of voters believe there is no solution to Greece’s crisis. The result has also given Tsipras a solid four-year mandate. Most importantly, it has clarified the euro in/out contradiction that was at the heart of the party, and made Syriza’s mandate and riding instruction from its voters clear. Presumably the recriminations will now flow within Popular Unity – particularly since they have suffered the same fate as the earlier Syriza split off, the Democratic Left, who disappeared from parliament in the last election, which must be weeks ago by now. But disastrous though the result is for them, what else could the Left Platform do, but stake a clear ‘pro-Grexit’ position? There is a tragic element to it, but simply because something is tragic, doesn’t make it regrettable.

The difficulties that Syriza faced (such as the intractability of its EU tormentors) brought out the worst in a certain strand of the Left – ressentiment masquerading as critique, a desire to define itself against the nearest major power, even if it too was on the left. The argument that Syriza should cleave to the side of rejection, and interpret its mandate as preferring Grexit as a last resort to continued austerity and EU colonisation, was legitimate – but the argument that this was unquestionably the party’s mandate wasn’t. The situation was complicated by a degree of pseudo-knowledge bandied about as to the alleged straightforwardness of exiting a common currency. Costas Lapavitsas, economist of Popular Unity, had argued that it was straightforward – but Yanis Varoufakis, an opponent of the deal Tsipras made (and a voter for Popular Unity, after not standing again for parliament), had argued that it was next to impossible. Who’s right? The question is unknowable even to specialists, but it can reasonably be argued that it is far more likely to be very very difficult than it is to be straightforward. Those on the Left who simply took up Lapavitsas’ claims, without being able to understand them were simply engaging in magical thinking, oriented to a desirable fantasy result.

So what happens next? What happens even next week? No-one knows. Will the non-Communist Party (KKE) Left be able to regroup and offer a plausible program? The odds are not good, for the simple reason that – for all their critique – the Left were still trying to offer an argument for governing within a capitalist framework. Even the Trotskyist Antarsya (who gained 0.84% – had they and Popular Unity allied as a single list, they would have gained about eight MPs, and things might have taken a different course) had thrown its weight behind Grexit, redrachmatisation and the overcoming of ‘national humiliation’, a pretty, erm, strategic thing for a Trotskyist group to advocate. Grexit – even with a nationalisation program attached to it – offered only a transition from one capitalist relation to another, yet it acquired a fetish character, as if the act might have substituted for a greater disruption. It seemed to have more to do with defining groups against Syriza, for the purposes of defining their own political identity. What is usually called the ‘far left’ elsewhere, is really the ‘middle-Left’ (since the KKE retains a third-period politics, and a rigid determinism as regards capitalist historical process) and its prospects are very poor.

The other question is how far will Tsipras and Syriza go to the centre – and across it? Tsipras has either become (or always was) exasperated by his Left Platform colleagues, and there was no doubting his exuberant sense of release after Sunday’s vote. Posing happily, raised hands together, with Panos Kamenos, leader of the Independent Greeks, a nativist New Democracy offshoot, was about as direct a riposte as one could imagine, and is more than a little unsettling.

But Tsipras has been playing a complex game for quite a while. Much of what many ordinary Greeks want preserved isn’t part of a modern social democracy at all. A whole series of entitlements and regulations are really patronage networks of a pre-modern state (indeed, of an Ottoman province) drawn up into modernity, and then generalised. Much of it – over-reliance on civil service pensions as family-wide welfare, shop restrictions, tax exemptions, etc. – should have been dealt with by ND or PASOK in the 90s and 2000s. Now the EU is demanding that such things be ironed out, as part of the third bailout deal proposal. This extends to matters such as restrictions on pharmacy chains operating and so on. Why would the EU concern itself with such minutiae? Greece is not a huge market for Boots the Chemist.

One conclusion might be that Tsipras agreed to the third bailout with such details because he wants the EU to impose modernisation on the Greek state, in order to deal with things he would find politically impossible to achieve. Some of these moves will be regressive, but some won’t. From any reasonably materialist point of view, there is no progressive cachet in freezing in place social relations that are clientalist, corrupt, and of sole benefit to the petit-bourgeoisie. Will Tsipras be able to stop at a strategic set-point in this process? Or will he succumb to the now familiar process of becoming neoliberalised by the sheer process of power, paucity of options, and the finite limits of human stamina?

Furthermore, there’s also a question as to what happens now to Syriza’s social program, especially as regards ideas of a third, ‘social’ sector, based initially around protecting the ad-hoc medical and other collectives that had sprung up in the vacuum created by austerity. This, along with Syriza’s cultural and social progressivism, is a key reason to continue supporting the party – for its social sector ideas are in advance of anything on offer from other Western governments. Greece’s position as the weak-link of the EU has produced the first post-capitalist government policies in the advanced world. Only those who fantasise about a new October, and see no other path to a better society, could be uninterested in this. But what path Syriza, or its leader – now canonised as the most successful politician in Europe – take remains to be seen in the coming months, weeks and days. A second honeymoon is the sweetest of all, then the bitterness begins.


Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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  1. Guy, Syriza is now morphing into PASOK .02,
    They were disastrous in handling the Brussels bureaucrats and the Germans. Varoufakis’ exotic economic theories, his malicious campaign to offend the ‘Europeans’ his lack of any method or plan, and his narcissistic behavior added to seeing Tsipras on his knees in front of Putin, instead of negotiating a deal in Brussels, combined to create a disaster for Greek citizens. The referendum we did not need, a cocaine hit politically, did nothing and we ended with copping it harder. The adulation that the left have for these guys should be tempered by the fact that most of their political peers like Podemos distanced themselves from them. While I have no great love for ND and Samaras, when Syriza took government Greece had the first primary surplus in 45yrs, albeit small. Within 4 months Syriza’s self indulgent antics forced Greece to institute capital controls for the first time since the Occupation in the 1940s. Pensioners suffered humiliation and small business and tourism, Greece’s key economic sectors, fell back by five years. Over 20% of last minute bookings to Greece were cancelled due to the chaos these guys caused. Comparing them to Keating, a master economic thinker, is like comparing Pol Pot to Olof Palme.

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