Syriza’s Slip

The victory of a Left Alliance, Syriza, in the Greek elections on January 25, was a matter of great significance, especially because that victory was based on a promise that Syriza would get rid of the memoranda imposing austerity on Greece by the “Troika” (the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF).  Syriza’s victory was thus expressive of a popular revolt against neo-liberalism.

Upon coming to power Syriza wanted to end all existing agreements with the “troika” on the grounds that these had been decisively rejected by the Greek people.  It wanted instead to have a “bridge programme” involving no conditions and reviews, under which Greece would forego the remaining instalments of earlier programmes except a few specific items such as the return of 1.9 billion Euros which the ECB and other Eurozone central banks had gained from holding Greek bonds, and the Greek government’s issuing Treasury Bills in excess of 15 billion Euros to meet any emergency liquidity requirements.  At the end of the transitional period of the “bridge programme” Greece would present fiscal proposals and reform plans and negotiate debt restructuring-cum- reduction.

The EU’s position, strongly articulated by the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, was to insist that what Greece was negotiating was not a “bridge programme” marking the end of earlier arrangements but an extension of those pre-existing arrangements themselves.  And in the agreement reached between the Syriza and the European creditors on February 20, Greece has had to agree to the following points: (i) evaluation by the “troika”, (ii) commitments and conditions, (iii) scheduled instalments as they appear in earlier programmes, (iv) a return of 1.9 billion Euros of gains on Greek bonds made by the ECB and other Eurozone central banks, only subject to favourable assessment by the “troika”, (v) no explicit reference to how Greece would meet its liquidity requirements (ie, to the question of Greece issuing Treasury Bills in excess of 15 billion Euros), which suggests that the ECB would be the final arbiter on this matter, and (vi) no acceptance of debt reduction or restructuring by its creditors, which means that running a fiscal surplus would continue to be the main instrument for the repayment of Greek debt.

What Greece has achieved in exchange is the following: (a) the size of the primary fiscal surplus for 2015 is left open, not tied to 3 percent of the Greek GDP or any other such specific figure, (ii) the particular measures agreed to by the previous Greek government, such as reduction of pensions and increase of VAT need not be adhered to, and instead the Syriza government can suggest its own reforms for fiscal consolidation and growth to the “troika”, just as it can undertake specific economic measures for the people as long as such measures do not jeopardise fiscal “consolidation”.

In short, the basic premise upon which Syriza had been elected, namely getting rid of the domination of the “troika” has not been fulfilled; what has been achieved by the Syriza government however is a degree of leeway in carrying out its fiscal consolidation.  In return for retaining their overall supervision of the Greek economy, the “troika” or the “institutions” as they have now started being called, have given the Syriza government a degree of freedom to have its own way of achieving fiscal consolidation, but subject to their approval.

The February 20 agreement, needless to say, has been widely debated.  The Greek Communists and large segments of the Syriza itself have been opposed to it and termed it a climb down from Syriza’s election promise.  The 92-year-old hero of the Greek resistance against Nazi occupation, Manolis Glezos, who had climbed atop the Acropolis in 1941 and torn down the Swastika and had been sentenced to death for it, in whose honour the Soviet government had issued a special postage stamp, and who is now a Syriza member of the European parliament, has gone to the extent of apologising to the Greek people for creating the illusion that the Syriza government would bring in a new dispensation devoid of the hegemony of the “troika”.  On the other hand, several progressive economists, including Paul Krugman, have seen the agreement as a positive development, a step forward by the new Syriza government.

There can be no gainsaying that the Syriza government was facing an extremely difficult situation.  Capital flight from Greece had started and unless there was a measure of reassurance, such as what the agreement has brought, there could well have been a run on the banks.  True, the Syriza government, it could be argued, should have imposed capital controls to prevent capital flight and a run on the banks, but this might have meant an end to Greece’s Eurozone membership, which the bulk of the Greek people apparently do not want.  Syriza’s real dilemma in other words arises from a contradiction in the attitudes of the Greek people themselves: on the one hand they want an end to “austerity”, but on the other hand they want to stay on in the Eurozone.  And if the Syriza government has to operate, keeping these two constraints in mind, then, at least in the immediate context, it would be argued, it has succeeded in having a “truce” that gives it some breathing space to work out its longer-term strategy.  The February 20 agreement between Greece and the “institutions” can then be seen as a “truce” that represents the best of a bad job for Syriza, and, despite falling woefully short of its electoral promises, at least keeps alive the possibility of Greece’s engaging its creditors in a fight four months down the line (for that is the length of this period of transition).

While it would be utterly premature to jump into any attack on a newly elected Left-wing government within the metropolis itself, which is in the midst of an extraordinarily difficult situation, there are nonetheless some disquieting features about the Syriza stance that give the impression that it may be sliding down.  One is the fact that instead of taking the people into confidence, telling them the truth both about the difficulty being faced by the new government and about the concessions it has temporarily made to overcome them, Syriza leaders are busy presenting the “truce” as a victory.  This is done not just by Yanis Varoufakis the finance minister who did the difficult negotiations and hence can be excused for taking a more benign view of the outcome precisely because of these difficulties of which he had first-hand knowledge, but even by Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras himself.

Syriza surely cannot be naïve enough to believe that it can get rid of the “austerity” measures being imposed on Greece without confronting German finance capital and hence being prepared to leave the European Union which is dominated by German finance capital.  True, the Americans have been selling this illusion to the Syriza leadership that they can help the Syriza government to get a better deal from the EU, basically as a means of preventing Syriza from making any attempts to link with Putin’s Russia; and there may be some in the Syriza leadership who nurture this illusion, both as a means of escaping a harsh reality and also because a segment of the contemporary Left, alas, is quite prone to getting hegemonised by progressive liberal thinking.  But this cannot be true of the overwhelming bulk of Syriza.  And if so, ie, if the Syriza leadership is aware of the contradiction between clinging on to EU membership and resisting “austerity”, a contradiction stressed by the Greek Communists, then it should be preparing the Greek people to shed the illusion that these two can be reconciled.  Speaking the truth to them is a precondition for this, while presenting a compromise (the February 20 agreement), and that too not a very favourable one for Greece, as a victory, is to keep them trapped within that illusion.

It is not enough however that the Greek people should be prepared for a possible break with the EU if their desire to get rid of “austerity” is to be realised.  Alternative arrangements about how Greece can cope with such a break have to be worked out.  Alternative openings for international financial assistance in the event of such a break, or even as a means of putting pressure on German finance capital so that it accedes to Greece’s demand for debt restructuring/reduction which may even prevent a break, have to be explored right now, during precisely the breathing period that Greece has obtained because of the February 20 agreement.

Likewise, it is important for Syriza to mobilise European public opinion, and even work out common strategies with other Left forces, especially with the Spanish Left alliance that is tipped to repeat in that country, in the elections due in a few months’ time, what Syriza has achieved in Greece.  These strategies can only be worked out by a proactive government coping with a “problem”, not by a government that calls the February 20 agreement a “victory” and hence denies the very existence of any “problem” whatsoever.  Similarly as many Syriza leaders themselves have pointed out, to prevent disillusionment among the people and to mobilise them for marching ahead, Syriza needs to have a programme for taking on the domestic oligarchy which both evades taxes and is steeped in corruption.

The breathing space provided by the February 20 agreement should be making Syriza draw up its plans for fighting “austerity” and taking the Greek people forward.  The real test for assessing the February 20 agreement consists not so much in looking at the agreement itself, which any Left government could well get forced into signing in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but in what follows.  On this score however, as of now, the record is not very enthusing.

What happens to the Syriza experiment is important not only for Greece and not only for Europe at large, where any failure of the Left could pave the way for a swing to the right; it is also important for the Left forces all over the world which are engaged in a struggle against neo-liberalism.  It is for this reason that many on the Greek Left are now talking of mobilising the people to come on to the streets for putting pressure on the Syriza government so that it does not compromise with German finance capital at the expense of its own electoral promises.

Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India.  This article was first published in People’s Democracy 39.12 (22 March 2015); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.