It took less than 24 hours for the warnings and fear mongering to begin. This is what happens when you elect a party whose English name means Coalition of the Radical Left– you are lectured by the likes of David Cameron and Angela Merkel about being a de-stabilising force. Destabilising indeed. But what are the values of human beings that would not welcome a party that is promising to de-stabilise a system that has raised the unemployment rate to 28%, has cut the elderly off from their pensions and health care, and has raised the suicide rate by 30%? Money-values. Cameron and Merkel fear the destabilization of money flows from Greece back to German and European banks; the destabilization of a “bail out” composed mostly of loans that allow Greece to pay the interest on its debt. So they hope to destabilise the destabilisers before they can have any positive effect and inspire other movements across Southern Europe to repudiate debt and begin the real task of building an alternative democratic life-economy.
If it achieves nothing else, Syriza’s victory in the Greek election on January 25th, 2015 at least exposes the absolute contempt for democracy and life-value that the maintenance of capitalism actually requires. Just as free speech ends where the sacred cows of the ruling class begin, so too democracy extends only so far as rubber stamping debt-servitude and exploitation. Elect a government that promises to end the subordination of life-requirement satisfaction to money-value and the ruling class begins to organise its forces for a coup.
However, Syriza’s capacity to make a difference is threatened by internal dangers as well. In general, Syriza finds itself facing the double bind that all parties and movements to the left of moribund social democrats face. On the one hand, they could run on a promise to implement their radically alternative economic model and risk losing out on a chance at power because too many people lack confidence that the alternative model can be realised. On the other hand, they could focus narrowly on the promise to manage the economic crisis differently, drive a harder bargain with the European Union and its central bank, offer the Greek people immediate relief while leaving the structural problems of capitalism (and not just Greek capitalism) unaddressed, but gain election. In the end, the later course has been chosen.
Having chosen the narrow road, Syriza must now confront the particular dangers of compromise, of which two very significant ones have already arisen. First, because they won “only” one hundred and forty nine of three hundred seats, the party was forced into an alliance with the right-wing nationalist Independent Greeks party in order to govern. Second, their choice for finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, is a very far from radical left academic who has said publically that Syriza’s program for systematic economic transformation is “not worth the paper it is written on,” and seems exclusively concerned with renegotiating the terms of debt repayment.
That Syriza has chosen an vitriolically nationalist party as an ally of convenience should be of concern to its Greek and international supporters. In giving the Independent Greeks an effective veto over government policy, Syriza has virtually guaranteed that it will not be able to implement the more structurally transformative demands of its program. In the most likely scenario, the government will use its mandate to try to renegotiate the terms of its debt repayment, but unless it decides to leave the Eurozone, which Varoufakis has ruled out, it has little leverage in talks and thus little chance of succeeding if it sticks to the road of negotiation. Judging on the basis of just these two initial compromises, it is little wonder that critics like Panagiotis Sotiris were worrying even before the election about the rightward turn of Syriza’s leadership.
Still, we are only a few days into their mandate. Let us imagine another set of possibilities. Millions of Greeks have just voted for the “Coalition of the Radical Left.” They have tasted the poison of capitalism in crisis. They have experienced their lives and livelihoods attacked and dismantled so that money that could support life-productive enterprise can be shipped to banks to be turned into more money for the bankers. They are ready for a fight. Let s assume that the holders of Greek debt are unwilling to make anything more than cosmetic changes to the Greek debt. What then?
Capitulation is a possibility. But so too is a fight, a fight that would have to be mobilised in the streets. I do not mean an afternoon of demonstrations after which everyone goes home, but a disciplined and organized extra-parliamentary movement that can push Syriza to implement its full program– strikes, demonstrations, occupations, teach ins, factory take over, land reclamations, all co-ordinated with the left of the party. All of this would have to be defended on the basis of a different value-system– the priority of life and life’s development over money accumulation in private hands. And then this movement would need to be spread to Spain and Italy and everywhere else the ‘austerity agenda’ is undermining public institutions and their life-serving function. That includes Canada.
As in the whole history of socialism, the national struggle will either succeed in sparking international mobilization, or it will die in the nation state that tries it first. Venezuela has survived as long as it has because it spread the movement to Bolivia and Ecuador and (to a lesser extent) Nicaragua and (to a lesser extent still) Brazil, and had an ally in Cuba. The concrete reality of internationalism is political control over national policy; the condition of successfully transforming national institutions is international allies and counter-institutions of credit and finance that free governments from dependence on predatory capitalist banks and international institutions like the IMF. The problem, of course, is that those counter-institutions either do not exist (in Europe) or only in early, embryonic form (in South America). But unless Syriza plays offence and actively builds a mobilization in the streets of Greece and inspires the streets of Madrid and Rome, it will find itself overwhelmed at the conference table. But the streets of Madrid and Rome are ready for anti-austerity mobilization, and if they start to move, then Syriza’s election could be the turning point the left has needed for thirty years.