Negotiations are long and painful processes. For the past five months we have witnessed one of the most prolonged sagas of this type, between Greece and the “Troika” (IMF, ECB, EC) – the creditors whose impositions have been responsible for increasing Greek debt from 120 per cent of GDP to 180 per cent, and who have imposed austerity programmes that have caused the social fabric to disintegrate. It has become almost impossible to imagine any political discussion within Greece or the broader EU that does not fixate on insider information or possible scenarios predicting the end of the process. Metaphors from Greek drama have been heavily drawn on, as if the negotiations are nothing more than a suspense story – in The Guardian of 22 June Larry Elliott described the negotiations as the story of “Tsipras of Athens”, “a gripping drama entering its final act”.
Syntagma Square, shortly after the 12 July Euro-Summit agreement. Photo: Chris Acos. Source:Flickr
But the rise of Syriza to power represents so much more than the outcome of these negotiations, or the resolution of a cliff-hanger. And even within the gloomy environment of the negotiations the importance of what it has achieved should not be overlooked. For, irrespective of the eventual outcome, it has succeeded in exposing some basic truths about the current European Union: that it is a union bent on enforcing the financialization of the whole area – which inevitably creates winners and losers; it is a union dominated by a neoliberal agenda – and determined to preserve this agenda at any cost; and it is a union far removed from the “Social Europe” many of us once imagined.
Syriza has rendered visible the extent to which neoliberalism dominates transnational institutions, including the EU, and the ways in which this is assisted by national political and economic elites. It has shown how difficult it is for democratically elected governments to escape the grip of those who represent the interests of global capital, especially finance capital, and how ruthlessly the global elite pursue their goals (not to mention the readiness with which social democrats – with a few honourable exceptions – roll over under their pressure). The current negotiations have never been only about different ideas about how to run an economy; they have been about trying to resist a dominant group that is seeking to impose its will.
And Syriza has also paved the way for the imagining of a new left, liberated from the defeats of the last thirty years. It has shown that it is possible to create alliances that articulate a popular desire for change. The EU elite has not lost sight of this, and nor should we.
For a discourse with such a short life span, neoliberalism has enjoyed a disproportionately powerful grip on the public imagination. But it is not difficult to diagnose how this condition came about. It is a response to a set of questions arising within a particular historical reality, marked by the end of the threat of communism, and failure to create growth that can sustain ordinary people’s living standards while simultaneously sustaining profit. The collapse of communism, combined with the weakness of social democracy, is what empowered leaders such as Thatcher and Reagan. The financial crisis has demonstrated that the model they imposed is not working, but there is now a battle over what comes next. It is in this context that Syriza is fighting for a new politics.
However one feature of the neoliberal era has been the deep entanglement of all areas of life in financialization; this makes it difficult to escape, either nationally or transnationally. National governments find it very difficult to go against the interests of international finance and their lobbyists – and so few of them try to do so. This is one of the factors inhibiting the Greek government from taking a light-hearted decision to exit the Eurozone. Defaulting on one’s external debt obligations has not been an uncommon practice in the past. Greece has defaulted on at least five occasions in modern times, the first time in the early days of Greek independence, in 1826, and the most recent time after the Great Depression in 1932. The reluctance to take this step by the Syriza-led government is precisely due to the problems caused by the extensive financialization of the international economy. Within an overly interdependent international financial structure, a default would lead to further problems for the domestic economy, at least in the short term, leading in turn to more disintegration in the social fabric of society, and potentially to political instability, which could have unexpected and undesirable effects.
Although some people argue that these could potentially be mitigated in the long run, they make the decision for default a difficult proposition.
In this context, those who criticise the Syriza leadership for making concessions are wilfully ignoring the material conditions in which they operate. Negotiations require concessions, and the neoliberal internationale are formidable enforcers. What’s more, the Greek people have made it very clear that they want to stay in the Eurozone. It is not acceptable to stick to only one part of the democratic mandate, simply because one prefers it to the other part. And constructing a popular electoral alliance is much easier than governing according to one’s mandate in the face of overwhelming obstacles.
The next step for Syriza – and as the possibility of default remains open – is to reconnect with its grassroots, building the social structures that will in the future support more radical changes. On the transnational level, what the Greek people need now is an international refusal of neoliberal excesses, and a re-imagining of Europe as a place of international solidarity.