Can Europe Make It?

Who is afraid of Syriza?

If Syriza’s government is crushed by financial markets it would be hard to argue that democracy is still able to control capitalism. 

Jan Zielonka
4 February 2015

This is one of a series of articles we are publishing from Eutopia Magazine – ideas for Europe. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field.

Syriza election congress, January 2015.

Syriza election congress, January 2015. Kostis Ntantamis/Demotix. All rights reserved.Greeks gave the world democracy, and they have now reminded the world that democracy still has some meaning, at least for the Greeks. The European Fiscal Compact has introduced a rule that individual states can freely choose their leaders, but they cannot change their economic and budgetary policy. The victorious Syriza has promised its electorate that the most important socio-economic decisions will be made in Athens rather than Berlin, Brussels, or Washington. From now on the Greek Parliament and not the Troika is to be sovereign.

Obviously the reality is more complex. Maintaining a stable government in a politically divided and economically ruined Greece will not be easy. The two parties which formed the government have little in common but their hatred of externally imposed austerity.

Maintaining unity within Syriza will not be easy either. If Tsipras makes a compromise with the creditors this may prompt a rebellion from more radical Syriza members, but if he refuses to make any compromises this is likely to lead to the bankruptcy of his country.

Nor would it be easy for Tsipras to alter current EU policy; the President of the European Commission has already stated that debt forgiveness is not on his radar. This only confirms Tsipras’ thesis that present day Europe is a symbol of national egoism, catastrophic austerity, external imposition, and unsustainable sanctions. For him, Europe ought to be a symbol of democracy, solidarity, and cooperation.

It is fairly easy to identify those segments of the electorate that look to Syriza with hope. These are primarily poor people in Greece and other countries engulfed by the crisis. Syriza promised to beef up investments aimed at reducing unemployment. It also promised social help to those who cannot afford a hot meal, an apartment, heating, school, and medical care. Those who want to combat corruption, tax havens, and informal power networks look to Syriza with hope. For them, Syriza looks like a party willing to restore the rule of law, democracy, and a truly free market.

Among the hopeful are also those who want to see an end to the European or German “dictate” imposing budgetary restrictions that, in their view, hamper the economic recovery and contradict the principle that all states are sovereign and equal. Those who want to curb banking excesses look at Syriza with hope because, in their view, these banks generate successive crises and shift the costs of these crises onto the shoulders of ordinary taxpayers.

Which segments of the electorate look at Syriza with fear? These are chiefly those who made handsome fortunes before the crisis and who are likely to be scrutinised if not squeezed by Syriza  [This group includes the Greek orthodox clergy and their supporters]. Fearful too are segments of northern European electorates who expect that the generous social policy of Syriza will be paid for not with Greek money but with theirs.

There is also fear of Syriza from segments of eastern European electorates who suspect that Syriza’s friendly policy towards Russia will encourage Putin’s imperial ambitions. Finally, all those European citizens who envisage further economic and political instability resulting from Syriza’s rise to power, look on the party with fear. Instability breeds uncertainty and most of Europe’s citizens are looking forward to a quieter future after what has been a few years of turbulence.

Particularly interesting is the reaction of the European establishment to Syriza’s victory. Europe’s mediacracy – the informal network of ruling politicians, business leaders, and media pundits – has branded Syriza a group of radicals determined to end the era of pragmatism and replace it with an era of populism.

If Syriza is to get its way today, the argument goes, we can expect the left-wing populists from Podemos to take power in Spain and the right-wing populists from the Front National to do the same in France.

The former will introduce the policies of such ideological heroes such as Argentinian Ernesto Laclau or Venezuelan Hugo Chávez with devastating implications for the economy. The latter may even bring back fascism to Europe. There is no doubt that such a scenario would be worrying, but branding all new political entrepreneurs as ‘populists’ is conceptually flawed and politically dishonest.

Syriza has indeed made many promises it will not be able to keep, but making empty promises is a common practice for most politicians today. This is partly because national governments have lost control of the movement of capital and labour across their borders, and partly because of the nature of the media-saturated political competition.

When we look with an open mind at Syriza’s political programme we can probably conclude that it is risky but not mad. Syriza has promised debt relief to the Greeks; a policy which is also being suggested by some leading European economists.

Can one really believe that Greece will ever repay their debts without healthy growth? Even the editors of the Bloomberg View endorsed the idea of debt relief and they are not Syriza’s ideological bed-fellows. In fact, they have called Syriza ‘populist’.

Syriza promised to curb tax evasion in Greece. One can call this promise a bit populist, but is the purpose wrong? Syriza promised to halt the “humanitarian catastrophe” by helping those most affected by the crisis. I am not sure how much Syriza will be able to achieve in this field given limited state resources.

However, is it so wrong to beef up social provisions for those in dire need? After all, it is hard to argue that young unemployed Greeks are responsible for Greek economic mismanagement prior to the Euro-crisis. And it was not ordinary Greeks who designed a flawed currency union.

I am not in favour of all Syriza’s promises. I am certainly more critical of “new kids on the block” from the Right such as Gerd Wilders, Nigel Farage, or Marine Le Pen. However, I have a feeling that Europe’s mediacracy brands anyone who disagrees with them and challenges their privileged position as a populist.

If you oppose neo-liberal economic policies you are branded as a populist. If you argue that your successive governments failed to elaborate effective immigration policies you are branded as a populist. If you criticize the EU for intervening in our lives without sufficient democratic legitimacy you are branded as a populist.

Syriza is the first anti-establishment party to win national elections and its fortunes will have a huge symbolic meaning for the future of the continent. If Syriza’s government is crushed by financial markets it would be hard to argue that democracy is still able to control capitalism.

If Greece is pushed out of the Euro this would represent the first meaningful step towards European disintegration. If Syriza manages to stimulate economic growth and reduce poverty this would give a boost to a radical rather than moderate Left in Europe. If Tsipras proves to be a political master this may convince many young people across Europe to get involved in politics with truly revolutionary implications.

I do not know which scenario is more realistic. Nor do I know which scenario is optimistic and which is pessimistic. I only know that Syriza has opened a new chapter in Europe’s history.

First published at Eutopia.

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