November 20, 2017
Again, our congratulations on your thirtieth anniversary celebration, in which we were delighted to take part. Your accomplishment for the Greek community has been truly extraordinary, and we’ve been proud to have been part of it the whole way. Many more years of growth and success!
I’m attaching a new article, an essay review of Helena Sheehan’s The Syriza Wave with commentary of my own. It was good to hear appeals on behalf of Greece at the celebration; the country needs the support of all who love it, particularly at this moment.
Thanks and best –
The Rise and Fall of Syriza: Helen Sheehan’s The Syriza Wave
By Professor Robert Zaller
Reports have it that Greece has begun to reenter the European bond market, where it has for the past decade been crucified on what the American statesman William Jennings Bryan once called a cross of gold. And that is the epitaph of Syriza, the once-obscure left coalition that came unexpectedly to power in January 2015, sought vainly to ease the odious debt that had crushed the national economy, and now services it for its EU masters. Syriza’s failure, unfolding over months before a world audience, was complete, catastrophic, and humiliating, and its hapless leader, Alexis Tsipras, was forced to endure a day of televised chastisement and personal ridicule in the European Parliament before surrendering to a Diktat that would leave Greece chained to a vastly increased indebtedness for decades, if not forever.
The Greek spirit had not been broken by centuries of Ottoman rule, or the brutal Nazi occupation of the 1940s that had cost 400,000 lives, or the military dictatorship of 1967-74. Nor had it been broken by the crippling austerity imposed on it in the wake of the global financial breakdown of 2008. The election of Syriza in a Europe none of whose other nations had dared to empower a government committed to breaking the stranglehold of the banks was its gesture of defiance. And all Europe took hope from it. Its consequent failure was, as Helena Sheehan’s The Syriza Wave (Monthly Review Press, 2016) makes clear, a major international event.
To understand what happened in Greece, we must look back for a moment at the great meltdown of a decade ago. Banks had cynically made subprime loans, both to individuals and to nations. Those to individuals went, in large part, to housing. Those to nations went, in more or less similar fashion, to infrastructure and development. Markets propped up the strategy, secure in the knowledge that, when the day of reckoning came, lenders would recoup their investments one way or another. Individuals who had bought houses they couldn’t afford would be dispossessed, and the homes they’d be forced out of would become bank property to be resold as prices rose again. The assets of nations could be similarly confiscated. The banks would be recapitalized on the backs of those they’d cheated, robbed, and flung into the street. They were, in the parlance of the moment, “too big to fail.” Nations, on the other hand, at least certain ones, not only weren’t that big; they’d been set up to fail—to be stripped of whatever wealth remained to them, of whatever sovereignty they had had, and whatever future their citizens had hoped for.
The entire southern tier of Europe—Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece—was served this potage by a German-led cabal that included Austria, Finland, and the Benelux countries in a classic example of North-South exploitation. Italy and Spain were too large to punish with complete impunity, and Spain’s safety net largely held even as its unemployment rate surged past 25%. Portugal bowed its head. But Greece fared by far the worst, not only in terms of economic devastation and third-party pillage (even Italy joined in looting Greek assets), but of ad hominem abuse. The Greeks—who had Europe’s longest workweek—were lazy and improvident; they had falsified their economic figures to join the European Union and didn’t deserve continued membership; they had no right to their own classical heritage, having proved incapable of living up to it and unworthy of administering it. One had to go back to the Nazis’ racial contempt for Slavic nations such as Poland and Russia to find a comparable rhetoric, and in that was a clue to the contemporary treatment of Greece. When Poland and France had been conquered and the rest of Continental Europe had either made its peace with Hitler or lay at his feet, only Greece had beaten back fascism from its borders and compelled the Wehrmacht to occupy it by force. That diversion cost Hitler two critical months in his planned invasion of Russia, and those lost months were never recouped in the war that ultimately proved fatal to the Third Reich.
The Germans have long memories. Revenge took them seventy years, but, with Europe once again their willing tool, they were ready to put the Greeks in their place—for good.
That the European Union appears as a dubious and even failed experiment to many of its constituent states is now openly acknowledged. It was designed as a liberal capitalist superstate with a social democratic veneer, but that veneer did not survive its first stiff test. Simply put, disfavored members—the ones designated to foot the bill for the 2008 crisis—were stripped of any illusion of national sovereignty, and their populations, far from being sustained by a Keynesian stimulus and a cushion of welfare spending, were cast into the cold. At the same time, elites within those states, particularly those connected to the financial “industry,” were sheltered, and their own losses (as with Wall Street’s patrons in the U.S.) quickly made good. Thus, rich states in the EU preyed on poor ones, and wealthy elites within the latter prospered at the expense of their fellow countrymen. It was a textbook illustration of what the EU was in practice: a device to facilitate the accumulation of wealth by the few through the borderless movement of goods and cheap labor, and to protect that wealth in times of crisis by offloading the costs onto the general public, all under the presiding power of the German hegemon.
I have invoked World War II in explaining the deep origins of the present situation. Back in the summer and fall of 1940, two states alone withstood the German onslaught: Greece on the Continent, and Britain offshore. The British bore the first brunt, in the aerial campaign remembered as the Battle of Britain. In 2015-16, it was Britain and Greece again that represented the opposition to what I and others have called the Fourth Reich of the EU, but in reverse order. Greece, under Syriza, rebelled against German dominion first. Its rebellion—opposed and condemned by the quisling regimes of all 27 other EU member states, Britain included—crashed in flames. But Britain itself rebelled a year later in voting to leave the EU, a process the latter is clearly trying to make as punitive as possible. Had the sequence gone the other way, and the Brexit vote been followed by a Greek rejection of austerity, it is at least tempting to think that things might have turned out differently. Certainly, the EU did face a moment of crisis in which its fundamental premises were challenged. The moment has passed, for now. But the ultimate sustainability of its project, not in terms alone if whether it can survive but whether it ought to, is now the cloud over its head.
It is in considering these questions that Sheehan’s book provides a useful perspective. Sheehan, now a professor emerita at Dublin City University, has been in the lists as a public intellectual of the left for several decades. As an Irishwoman, she has had her own first-hand experience of citizenship in a small and traditionally impoverished country that has long exported large numbers of most talented citizens. At the same time, making her home on the westernmost fringe of Europe, she is positioned—as Greeks are to the east—to look at Europe from a broad vantage point. That has led her to an engagement with Greece itself on both a personal and political level. The Syriza Wave is a book about Greek politics on the left over the past twenty-five years, but it is also about a passionate commitment to Greek culture and the Greek people. There is heart’s blood on every page for the tragedy that Syriza has come to represent, but also a warmth and generosity of spirit that enfolds that tragedy with affection and hope.
Hope, especially these days, must begin with clear-sightedness. For Greeks in particular, the experience of Syriza’s failure needs to be seen in a larger context. As Sheehan herself says, “The fate of the left anywhere is my fate. . . . I don’t only live in Ireland. I live in Europe and the wider world.” Greeks themselves, she suggests, must live the same way. Certainly, the fall of Syriza is in many ways a story of Greek politics, locally defined and circumscribed. But it is also part of a story that includes the rise of leftist movements and parties across Europe—the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, and a revived Labour Party in Britain—that represents a new populism of the left. In that context, Syriza is not merely a tale to be lamented, but an experience to be learned from.
Syriza coalesced as a political party in 2004 from a loose grouping of left partisans, many of whom had grown up with the once-formidable Greek Communist Party (KKE). At the time, the left was officially represented by the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), which had unexpectedly taken power in 1981 and had marginalized its rivals on the left at this point for a generation while slowly ossifying into a patronage factory within Greece’s clientelist political system, little different save for its constituency from its rightist alternative, New Democracy. Syriza made little impression at first, as a fringe party with electoral support in the lower single digits. The 2008 crisis exposed the impotence of both PASOK and New Democracy in the face of an immediate, concerted effort both in Washington, D.C. and Berlin to foist the private debt of major banks, brokerage firms, insurers, and corporations onto the backs of the taxpaying public. For reasons as I have suggested partly historical, but partly symbolic as well, Greece was the designated poster child in this process, at least within the EU orbit. The Greek economy—barely 2% that of the EU as a whole—was small enough to be crushed in a manner that would have been neither economically nor politically tolerable in the case, say, of Italy or Spain, while Greece itself had high symbolic visibility as the traditional icon of Western civilization. Its fate, in short, would have been visible as that of, say, Portugal or Slovenia would not.
Why, though, was Greece’s public whipping necessary?
The transfer of private to public debt in 2008 required a rationale. That rationale, as publicized in the Greek case, was a state of bankruptcy easily contrived by the combination of economic contraction and inflexible demands for government debt repayment. The Greek government was taxed, firstly, with having fraudulently entered the EU by cooking its books; secondly, with having improperly secured EU loans and investments on this basis; and, thirdly, with having grossly undertaxed its own citizens through a combination of inefficiency, evasion, and corruption, thus leaving the cost of its peculations to be borne by innocent EU publics abroad.
There was, in fact, enough truth in these accusations to make them plausible; they were also essentially beside the point. The object was to paint the Greek political system as uniquely improvident and corrupt, and therefore as deserving of condign penalties. Behind successive Greek governments stood the people who had elected them and who therefore bore the ultimate responsibility for their misdeeds. By this logical sleight of hand, the ordinary Greek worker—and, by extension, the wage-earners of Italy, Spain, Portugal, and even France—would be required to recapitalize German banks.
This situation, as Sheehan points out, was Syriza’s opportunity, because the politicians of both PASOK and New Democracy were deeply implicated in the process that had ensnared Greece in its plight, and could do little but follow German marching orders. As the economic squeeze bore down on Greece, however—catastrophically rising unemployment and underemployment rates, sharply reduced wages for those who still worked and slashed pensions for retirees, combined with steep and unprecedented taxes and cuts in social services, all complicated by a sudden surge in refugee populations from Africa and the Middle East—the populist backlash made itself felt both on the left and the right, and the neofascist Golden Dawn Party, hitherto a small and quiescent fringe, competed with Syriza for alienated voters. The country faced in fact a perfect storm of disaster, with massive downward economic pressure stripping it of its resources while leaving it to cope unaided with the humanitarian crisis washing up on its shores. The latter situation revealed the hypocrisy of the EU’s masters in all its shamelessness. On the one hand, the Schengen agreement had provided for the unfettered movement of goods, services, and persons across EU borders, enabling richer nations to import cheap labor that undercut their own working populations but maximized exploitation and profit. On the other, the Dublin accord required refugees to be accommodated solely within the borders of the countries of their initial entry, effectively making them, as Alexis Tsipras would later put it, warehouses of souls. In Greece, this required pauperized governments to put up tent cities for a stanchless flow of refugees, while more and more of its own citizens scrounged for food in garbage cans.
Such were the conditions that would face any government that took power in the elections of 2012. On the left, many agreed with economists such as Costas Lapavitsas, cited by Sheehan, who advocated a withdrawal from the European currency union that stripped individual states of fiscal policymaking powers. There was no illusion that this could be done without retaliation, even as EU spokesmen cuttingly argued that Greece had never merited admission to the Eurozone to begin with. In groups working with Syriza, such as Left Platform, scenarios were floated for dealing with the possibility of an international embargo on credit, energy, and other vital resources. Some within them worried, too, that as Syriza’s ranks grew, it would be infiltrated by neoliberal elements. Not the least of Greece’s problems was that of elites which, secure in their euro-denominated Swiss bank accounts, would undercut any efforts at genuine reform and stymie any national policy consensus that threatened their interests.
Sheehan saw the Greece of 2012 not as a local struggle but as the crucible of a systematic challenge to the left everywhere:
These cuts to pay, pensions, and public services, this privatization of public property, this redistribution of wealth from below to above: these were not temporary contingent measures. They were integral to a systematic restructuring of capitalism. It had advanced through Europe already from east to west. Where there were once experiments in socialism in the east, there were now oligarchies. Next on the agenda: advances achieved by the labor movement in the west were to be stripped. (p. 58)
One might add, of course, that the same process was already at work in the United States where, as in the Great Depression of 1929, the new one of 2008 had begun, and where it was being systematically exploited to exact major wealth transfers and to crush what remained of private labor unions (with public ones next on the docket). Throughout the Western world, indeed, the delegitimization of established political parties that was already evident in Greece had begun to produce populist parties of the left and right, and the rise of unaffiliated (but corporatist) politicians who encouraged a cult of personality around themselves.
Syriza’s gains in the 2012 elections left it poised to become the alternative to New Democracy. Its ranks were swollen by voters who deserted PASOK, and in doing so both gave Syriza its opportunity for power and challenged it to define its essential goals and policies. In the ensuing debate, it became clear that the more radical Left Platform would be in the minority in a party that, scenting office, was prepared to trim its sails. Alexis Tsipras would be no Lenin.
Sheehan offers a valuable description of the interparty debate that, punctuated by strikes and demonstrations, resulted in the Thessaloniki Program announced as Syriza’s official platform in September 2014. It was an anodyne document that, calling for humanitarian assistance and economic stimulus, sidestepped any question of deep structural reform and social justice. There was little in it with which any moderately reformist party within the established system could have quarreled: the ghost of PASOK, as one might say, had risen to inhabit the body of Syriza.
The election of January 2015 that brought Syriza to power was nonetheless seen as a watershed event. The European left appeared to have won its first electoral victory in decades. The odds of success in the international arena, with the full force of the German hegemon arrayed against the new Greek government, were little if any better than when Greece had defied the Nazis in 1941. “Even so,” Sheehan writes candidly, “I never expected anything as awful as what actually happened” (112). Within a month, Tsipras had capitulated to EU demands that Greece recommit to paying all its debts and honor the austerity obligations that previous governments had undertaken. That was the ball game. A third of Syriza’s deputies rejected the deal, as did a slightly higher proportion of its Central Committee. Manolis Glezos, the nonagenarian symbol of Greek defiance to the Nazis for having stripped the Swastika from the Parthenon as a teenaged youth and now a Syriza MP, apologized to the country: there could be no compromise, he said, between slavery and freedom.
Tsipras struggled within his noose. He passed symbolic antipoverty legislation against EU orders, in response to which an emergency loan was frozen. Debt repayment drained the treasury and national banks, and then pension funds, hospitals, and schools. There was popular sympathy for Syriza’s plight; Sheehan noted Greek flags flying in the streets of Dublin. All of that had no impact in Berlin and Brussels. Tsipras went hat in hand to beg promises of aid from Russia and China, to no avail. Finally, in a surprise move, he called for a national referendum on the creditors’ latest demands. Its wording was confused, but Greeks and their supporters in Europe gave it their own meaning: it was Oxi!, the celebrated response of Yiannis Metaxas to Mussolini’s demands on Greek territory that had brought war in 1940, and was the country’s ultimate symbol of resistance. Addressing a final rally prior to the vote in Syntagma Square, Tsipras quailed before a crowd seemingly on the verge of insurrection, cut a forty-minute speech down to eight, and all but called for the rejection of his own referendum by stressing Greece’s indissoluble ties to Europe.
The decisive, 62% approval of the referendum was a revolutionary act—by the country. But Tsipras, keelhauled in Brussels, abjectly capitulated to far worse terms than he’d rejected, including the designation of 50 billion euros in state assets for privatization. Soon, a new 86 billion euro loan program was grafted onto that to help Greece “restructure” its economy as a permanent debt colony. The feeblest and dimmest of all rebellions—in the end, Syriza seems to have had no plan at all to deal with a credit shutdown—had led to the worst of possible results. “Unfortunately,” a dissident Syriza MP who had voted to reject the EU package told Sheehan, “the spirit of the left in Greece appears to be broken.” An Irish colleague put it more bluntly: the Greek people, he said, had been “lions led by donkeys.”
In the weeks following, Tsipras purged the left elements in the Party who had refused to approve the EU demands, and called a snap election that gave him what he called a new ‘mandate’ to govern. In reality, Greece no longer had any parties because it no longer had a sovereign government. Failure was recast as success, betrayal as rescue. A new Orwellian world was born in which all language signified its opposite.
Sheehan vividly describes the post-mortem debates within Syriza, and the despairing effort to cobble together a left resistance to Tsipras. For Sheehan, this was not simply a job of reportage; as, in her own words, “the longest and strongest supporter of Syriza in Ireland,” its moral and political collapse was a deep personal blow. By the end of the year, polls showed public support for Syriza at 18%, down from 80% the previous winter. They also showed 83% of the country expressing no hope for the future.
Syriza’s defeat was also reflected in the disappointing showing of its Spanish counterpart, Podemos, in late-year elections. In Greece itself, the question was whether Greece itself would accept the situation that had led voters to keep Syriza in power in what appeared to be a moment of stunned resignation. An answer was seemingly given to be given in major general and public sector strikes that culminated in renewed demonstrations on July 5, the anniversary of the referendum. Disaffection, however, even rage, did not translate into effective political action, and the Popular Unity Coalition (LAE) of breakaway Syriza dissidents was unable to devise a plausible political program while the threat of another credit shutdown remained.
Meanwhile, the self-congratulation of the EU at its success in breaking the Greek left was rudely interrupted by the Brexit vote in June. Coming on top of a Scottish independence vote, it dramatized the split between winners and losers under the reign of finance capital, and the bitter resentment of cheap labor that undermined native prosperity. Britain had increasingly become again what Benjamin Disraeli had described in the 1840s: two nations, one rich and one poor. Much the same kind of economic resentment would fuel the abortive Catalan secession from Spain in October 2017, although directed the other way. Greece had been the extreme example. But in weakening the autonomy and vitiating the sovereignty of its member states, the EU had opened widening cracks and fissures that threatened to split European society along class and cultural faultlines, even as it strove to preserve a top-down command structure. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, right-wing, autocratic, and in Poland and Hungary frankly racist regimes gave the lie to the EU’s preferred liberal-democratic image.
Greece, of course, has long since been disabused of this image. The question as to its own course remains open. The mood of the country, as I found it this past summer, was starkly different from the still-defiant protests of 2016. For the first time in my many years in Greece—for the first time, perhaps, ever, in this land where the polis itself had been born—I found people seemingly indifferent to political discussion, even at the level of gossip and scandal. They appear to have passed through shame, anger, and disgust at their leader to the indifference one shows to a puppet. After seven years of relentless privation, their resources exhausted, their national patrimony sold off, their future forbidding, they are focused on survival. For now, the taverna is closed. But the reckoning, one cannot but feel, is yet to come.
This past spring, I had the pleasure of meeting Helena Sheehan, and experiencing her own undaunted hope. She has subtitled The Syriza Wave strikingly: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left. “With,” she says; the Greek struggle remains part of her own. For Greeks of the Diaspora and for philhellenes everywhere, what the people of Greece need to hear now, more than ever, is simply this: we are with you.