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The trouble with SYRIZA

Despite being 'a man of the Left', and despite being hugely critical of the parties that ruled the country since 1974, there are several things about the rise of SYRIZA that absolutely terrify me.

Yanis Varoufakis, Alexis Tsipras and Panos Kammenos. Demotix/Panayiotis Tzamaros. All rights reserved.The text is a version of the author's talk at a mini conference on “The Political Consequence of the Eurozone Crisis in the Debtor States”, at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, Harvard University (March 3, 2015).

The topic of my talk is so bitterly contested that I feel I should start with a confession – which is also a health warning: I am not that excited by the rise of SYRIZA. In fact, there are several things about it that absolutely terrify me. And I am saying this in spite of the fact that I consider myself ‘a man of the Left’, and even though I have always been highly critical of the parties that ruled the country in coalition or in competition with each other since 1974.

This is hardly the place nor the time to go very deeply into why and how a defeated minority of Greek progressives (to which I belong) have come to feel alienated from the current ascendance of the radical left, or into the reasons for so much ‘bad blood’ between radicals and moderates within the Left. I really cannot see how anyone in the audience can possibly want to know more about the fine details of this quarrel between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.

On the contrary, I believe it is important to acknowledge that recent developments in Greece cannot be fully made sense of as a straightforward triumph of leftists over conservatives. A move along a Left/Right axis, in this case brought about by an appalling economic and social crisis, has certainly taken place. But cutting across that familiar cleavage, there lies a very different one, crystalized around attitudes to Europe (and the ‘West’), national identity, the role of the Orthodox Church and so on and so forth. These are partly overlapping, seldom articulated, yet highly divisive questions that are steeped in history – the history of the unresolved conflicts that have accompanied Greece’s perennial, often half-hearted, always incomplete efforts to be a modern country.

I am not a historian, so I won’t go much further into all this. But it seems to me that, over the longue durée, the latter cleavage is about as equally deep as the former, and under certain circumstances it may actually dominate. I would argue that this is crucial to understanding the ‘present conjuncture’ in Greece.

The other introductory statement I would also like to make at the outset is that in my talk today I will not dwell on the brighter side of the rise of SYRIZA: the revitalization of democracy; the punishment of incumbents for failing to deliver; the renewal of political elites; the return of hope in place of despondency; a restored sense that ordinary people can take control of their fate. Not because I do not consider this brighter side to exist, or to be relevant to our theme: it does, and it is – and in fact goes a long way towards explaining the engagement of so many younger Greeks, their elation with the election result, and even their apparent satisfaction with the way the new government has so far handled the negotiations with Greece's European partners. I will only leave these positive aspects aside because I find them obvious, and because I expect this audience to be sufficiently familiar with them to render much further discussion superfluous.

Let me then turn to the first question I have been asked to address: What is my overall assessment of how the economic crisis has altered the political landscape/ electoral dynamics in Greece?

The answer to that can only be “very profoundly”. The combined vote of conservatives and socialists was 5.3 million (76.4%) in the October 2009 general election. In January 2015, the two parties received between them a mere 2 million votes (32.4%). The socialist party PASOK was nearly wiped out, going from 3 million votes to below 300,000, and from 44% to 4.7%. On the contrary, SYRIZA grew exponentially, from 4.6% to 36.3%.

What is the secret of SYRIZA’s success? Here answers diverge, depending on one’s reading of the situation. My own view is that the party flourished because it adopted a deliberately nationalist-populist strategy: one enemy (the Troika of foreign creditors and their domestic servants), one solution (end austerity by repealing the bailout agreement with a single act of parliament on day one). This simple message has enabled the party to tap into a vast reservoir of wounded pride. To some extent, that such a reservoir was created, and became vast, is rather understandable: it really is humiliating for any sovereign country to have the details of government policy dictated by unelected middle-ranking officials in Brussels, Frankfurt or Washington D.C. But in the case of Greece wounded pride went much further. To a very great extent, it resulted from a sort of cognitive dissonance: the incongruence between (i) the painful reality of near bankruptcy, and (ii) long-held, widely-shared beliefs about Greece’s proper place in the world (“cradle of civilization”, “birthplace of democracy” and all that).

Exploiting ‘the politics of resentment’ turned out to be a resounding success for SYRIZA. But it was achieved at a price. The social coalition assembled at grassroots level blended left-wing anti-imperialists with right-wing nationalists. The two groups suddenly discovered they were fighting on the same side, against the same enemies. The visual symbol of this new brotherhood became plain for all to see in the summer of 2011, during the protracted occupation of Athens’ Syntagma Square by a multitude of ‘Indignados’: leftists waving red flags in the ‘lower square’ coexisted happily with nationalists (including neo-Nazis) waving Greek flags in the ‘upper square’, and occasionally joined forces to shout abuse at parliament (and mob the occasional MP). The political coalition emerging victorious from the recent general election mirrored that social coalition quite faithfully (minus the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn).

Given the above, it should hardly come as a surprise that, on closer inspection, Greece’s ‘first Left government’ of young charismatic Alexis Tsipras is actually replete with reactionary/unsavoury personalities holding key cabinet portfolios. (Our new minister for defence, Panos Kammenos, is the rabidly nationalistic leader of Independent Greeks. Our new minister for foreign affairs, Nikos Kotzias, is the self-styled ideologue of the ‘patriotic Left’, whose latest book explains why Greece is a ‘debt colony’. Having emerged as the hardline instructor of the Communist Party of Greece in the 1980s, distinguishing himself as a staunch defender of martial law in Poland, he later reinvented himself as an apologist of Vladimir Putin[1].)

Now, some commentators at home and abroad have argued that one should not pay too much attention to such trivial details. All of this and more can be simply written off as an unfortunate necessity, to be archived under the label of political expediency. I am not so sure myself. The people of SYRIZA (leaders, rank-and-file, and voters) have in recent years grown fond of their anti-austerity allies, even when they are right-wing nationalists. This explains why the latest opinion polls show that as many as 70% of SYRIZA voters have a positive view of Kammenos. But there is plenty of other evidence, too, on the intellectual affinity between leftists and nationalists[2].

What is more, the last few years – and the January 2015 general election – have catapulted SYRIZA from backwater obscurity to the international limelight. Party leaders had long been accustomed to air their opinions with the license accorded to an irrelevant political force, by a public opinion inclined to lend an ear to conspiracy theories of all sorts. Now that these opinions are widely publicised the moment they are aired, the cultural identity of SYRIZA leaders and their allies is revealed for what it really is: a shallow, bitter, narrow, ugly ethnic nationalism, with racist overtones.

So, in the space of a single week, we have been officially informed that if Germany denies Greece a loan extension with no strings attached, Greece will retaliate by sending Third World migrants and jihadists to Germany (thus spoke minister of foreign affairs Kotzias); that if Germany fails to pay war reparations, Greece will confiscate German properties including the historic site of Goethe Institute (minister of justice Paraskevopoulos); that the ministry of defence will be involved in the history curriculum to ensure that Greek primary schools teach children a more extensive course in German WWII atrocities (minister of defence Kammenos and parliament chair Konstantopoulou); and that Poland’s sceptic attitude towards Greek demands in current bailout negotiations should not be surprising, given that the country had collaborated with Nazi Germany in WWII (coordination minister Flambouraris).

Summing up, to a great extent SYRIZA is a mutant Left: unfamiliar to western eyes (and hence poorly understood by many western observers), but all too terrifyingly familiar to those living in that unhappy corner of the world otherwise known as ‘the Balkans’. To stretch an analogy, the nationalistic left ruling Greece today is in many respects far more akin to the ethno-bolshevism of Slobodan Milošević than to Spain’s Podemos.

Now, it would be unfair to SYRIZA (and outright wrong) to claim that nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-western sentiments are confined to the current ruling coalition. As I have argued elsewhere, it goes far deeper than that. (It also incidentally explains why so many Greeks across the political spectrum are thrilled by the negotiating stance of the new government.) My point is rather that the recent election has been won not by “the Left” but by a broad nationalist-populist coalition, whose partners are not reluctant allies but comrades in arms.

Let me now briefly address the next question: How has the economic crisis been framed in the political arena (e.g. as emanating from internal vs. external causes)?

In Greece (as, I imagine, elsewhere), the soul-searching began as soon as the crisis erupted. Most people went into denial: ‘crisis, what crisis?’, ‘our fatherland has been betrayed’, ‘foreigners are trying to turn us into a colony’, ‘this is not our debt’, ‘can’t pay won’t pay’. Yanis Varoufakis himself famously suggested in 2011 that Greece bears as much responsibility for its woes as the State of Ohio had been responsible for the Great Depression in 1929. Hence, according to our current finance minister, the crisis was caused by the bailout agreement, rather than the other way around.

Some (including myself) objected that a fiscal deficit of 15.4% (in 2009) and an external deficit of 14.9% (in 2008) suggested that something must have got seriously wrong with Greece’s political economy. For 12 long years preceding the bailout, GDP per capita had grown by almost 4% annually, resulting in a broadly shared improvement in living standards. At the same time, Greek firms continued to lose ground in international markets. In view of that, we argued that some austerity at least was inevitable. The task of domestic actors (including unions and the Left) should not be to resist it, but to make it as equitable as possible, fight corruption and clientelism, reform institutions, and renew the country’s growth model.

It must be clear by now that, while SYRIZA and its anti-austerity allies administered instant absolution (‘it’s not your fault’), the best we moderate progressives could offer was blood, sweat and tears. There was hardly a contest.

An added complication was that the austerity programme was implemented by the same conservative and socialist elites who had ruled Greece for 35 years, and therefore were most to blame for making a bailout necessary in the first place. Why should they fight corruption and clientelism, the secrets to their success? No reason at all. In fact, they didn’t.

A curious aspect of the anti-austerity narrative (‘the crisis was caused by the 2010 bailout’) was that it completely let off the hook the disastrous conservative rule of 2004-2009 (during which Greece’s twin deficits more than doubled). The anti-austerity bloc generally holds Kostas Karamanlis, then PM, in high esteem, while it treats with absolute contempt the hapless George Papandreou (whose arguably main fault was that he failed to see the hot potato that was handed to him until it was too late). This is part of the reason why Alexis Tsipras offered the post of President of the Republic to Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who as minister for home affairs under Karamanlis had authorised the creation of a staggering 865,000 public sector jobs. (Later Pavlopoulos also reinvented himself as a fierce critic of austerity and the EU.)

Time is running out, so let me only make a brief comment on the last question. What are the implications of these developments for Europe as a whole?

In spite of everything I remain a European federalist, so it is my belief that the best way to relaunch the European project is to address its many imbalances, and explain to European citizens why a closer union is preferable to the status quo, and to no union.

What worries me is that the revival of the European project requires citizens who feel proud to be European as well as Greek, German etc. Instead, a key development of recent years is growing mutual incomprehension, at times verging on outright hostility, between Greeks and Germans (and other Europeans). It would have been nice if Greeks accepted responsibility for the disconnect between rising living standards and deteriorating economic performance pre-crisis, of which the fiscal deficit was only one manifestation. And it would also have been nice if other Europeans accepted that the Greek bailout was (at least partly) a bailout of German and French banks, who had been unwise enough to throw huge amounts of money into loans to Greeks (and other south Europeans). As we all know, none of this happened. Greeks went into denial, and Germans reverted to the moralistic finger-pointing which eventually proved so successful in paving the way for the rise of anti-establishment / anti-EU forces in Greece and elsewhere.

And this could well turn out to be the greatest political failure of all.

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[1] Sympathy towards the Soviet Union, and now Russia, runs deep and is especially strong among the far left and the far right. For a recent example, see the voting record of Greek MEPs at the European Parliament resolution of 23 October 2014, condemning the closing down of the Memorial NGO (Sakharov Prize 2009) in Russia. The resolution, calling on the Russian Government “to take concrete steps to address the deterioration of human rights, in particular by ceasing the campaign of harassment against civil-society organizations and activists”, had been sponsored by a broad coalition of political groups, including GUE-NGL. As it turned out, a vast majority of MEPs (529 or 85%) voted in favour. Only 57 (9%) voted against, while another 34 (5%) abstained. What was the voting record of the 21 Greek MEPs? Only 6 supported the resolution, 3 from the S&D group (out of 4), and 3 from EPP (out of 5). Independent Greeks voted against, together with the Communist Party and Golden Dawn deputies. As for the six SYRIZA MEPs, not one fell in line with their comrades in the GUE-NGL group: one voted against, three abstained, one failed to vote, another one was absent.

[2] See for instance the case of the notorious Rachil Makrì, until the recent general election an Independent Greek MP. Among her many antics stands out the recent vitriolic attack to Yannis Boutaris, mayor of Thessaloniki, for daring to wear the Star of David on the Day of the Shoa. (Almost 50,000 members of the city’s once-thriving Jewish community perished in the concentration camps.) “Shame on him!” shouted Ms Makrì on camera. None of this dissuaded Alexis Tsipras from signing her up on the SYRIZA list, nor the good citizens of Kozani, her constituency in northwest Greece, from sending her to Parliament with many more votes than before.

About the author

Manos Matsaganis is Associate Professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business. In 2014-2015 he has been visiting the US as a Fulbright Scholar (Center for European Studies, Harvard and Center of Equitable Growth, UC Berkeley).


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