Why Greece Doesn’t Matter


We have to stop talking about Greece.  What must emerge from the calamity of SYRIZA-ANEL is a renewed call for democracy.

There is a scene in the 1972 political satire The Candidate where Robert Redford looks at the camera and quietly says, “Politicians don’t talk, they make sounds.”

For the past five years Greece has been making a lot of sound.  For the past five months, the SYRIZA-led coalition government has been nothing but noisy.  The noise even formed slogans: “No More Austerity!”  “Out with the Troika!”  “Yes to a Democratic Europe!”  “Referendum!”  But slogans are not the same as strategies.

Elections and referendums are easy to win, change is harder.


What has happened in Greece is a tragedy.  The country now finds itself in the process of realizing a third Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).  The first two MoUs created a humanitarian crisis grinding people down to subhuman levels: 41% of children in poverty, a 35% increase in suicides, 35.7% of the population at risk of poverty.  Saddled with 177% debt to GDP, Greece has 27% unemployment with over 50% youth unemployment.  2% of the population have left since the crisis began in 2010.  The economic collapse is the second largest recorded in modern history, surpassing even the Great Depression of the United States.  Critically, however, the Greek crisis is still unfolding and is widely predicted to deteriorate further.

People are dying on the streets of Athens.  This has to stop.

With each MoU the governing party has fallen trying to implement it.  Greece even had an unelected technocrat government in 2011-2012, and in the last election a fascist, neo-Nazi party won the third largest number of seats in parliament.

To complicate matters further, the urban morphology of Athens is not designed to handle the crisis.  Its modern infrastructure is physically unable to support such a rapid depreciation in living standards.  For the past few winters the skyline of Athens has descended into smog as rising gas prices have forced people to start wood-fires within their apartments to stay warm.  People have been dying from the smoke, but people have been dying from the cold too.  And no end is in sight.

A man in a suit walks past a graffiti in central Athens that reads “Revolution Arrive,” as a used heroin needle lies in the foreground.  Since the crisis began there has been a 200% increase in cases of HIV.  Photograph by Athanasios Lazarou

Alexis Tsipras and his SYRIZA (literally an acronym for “Coalition of the Radical Left”) government are agreeing to engage in the largest-scale destruction of a European country’s social fabric since the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.  The third memorandum includes as much as €86b of financing, a €50b privatization plan monitored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the retrenchment of basic social and sovereign rights.  It is widely seen as deliberately cruel and designed to punish Greece.  This is not to place the blame solely on SYRIZA — the European Central Bank (ECB) and IMF are smart enough to know that what is being proposed is “an agreement that will deepen the country’s recession, makes its debt position less sustainable and virtually guarantees that its problems come bubbling back to the surface before too long.”

The present crisis is constantly analyzed and discussed starting from the preposition that the Greek political class has active agency in its resolution and possesses the potential for transformational change within the unfolding Euro-conflicts.  This is how SYRIZA has been framed and has framed itself.  It is lazy and wrong — political identity politics at its worst.

False Hope

SYRIZA promised a new politics.  The only thing that was new was the party administering it.

SYRIZA stormed university campuses with police, infringed on the right to assembly, abused parliamentary process to stifle debate, worked with the Greek oligarch class, carried out mass privatizations, and supported the NATO.  They formed a coalition government with a nationalist party whilst their own parliamentary composition comprised numerous former PASOK members (the same PASOK whose implementation of the first MoU led to the aforementioned humanitarian crisis).  They refused to address the law in Greece that gives politicians legal immunity and refused to remove the electoral law that awards the party with the highest votes extra 50 seats in a 300-seat parliament.

When SYRIZA came to power they promised to remove the “Troika” from Greece; instead they merely recategorized the Troika as “the Institutions.”  The referendum was claimed as a democratic call to arms, yet it too had severe structural flaws: a 72-word question referred to two technical documents of fiscal policy that had already lapsed.  The “No” option was moreover placed above the “Yes” option on the ballot paper.  It was an act of political theater.

Despite these numerous and repeated violations of legal, moral, and political conduct, people still called the party the “radical left” and assembled in the streets of Athens and throughout Greece in its support.  And people were dismayed when Greece was offered far worse terms than the ones that they had resoundingly rejected.  This is because the Greeks are desperate for an end to the crisis.

SYRIZA offered a break from the existing model, appearing to emerge from within itself.  Yet all that emerged was an old politics with a new face.

All those who actively supported SYRIZA are complicit.  That is how democracy works.

SYRIZA and the numerous other parties within the Greek political spectrum whose names even those outside Greece have had to learn over the past five years (ANEL, PASOK, New Democracy, To Potami) are all part of the same catalogue of neoliberal political products: they just operate at different ends of the rhetorical spectrum.  Some like New Democracy serve the interests of capital directly through the monopolies and oligarchs, whilst parties like SYRIZA co-opt those disenfranchised by them to do the same.  One side serves capital by operating under the promise of economic development at all costs, the other serves capital by promising a “fairer” redistribution of the intangible benefits.  They are both fuelled by global capital and at most only look to fiscal policy as remedy.  They both acknowledge the same market-dictated rules of the game.  They still need the same system to function and build upon each other to take turns in charge, just as they still need to seek “the other” to blame, whether this takes the form of a rival party or a foreign state.

These are all parties that insist on finding solutions for the problems of capitalist social and economic relations within capitalism itself.  Rarely is policy communicated on anything other than an economic indicator.  SYRIZA is neither radical nor left.  SYRIZA was doomed to fail before it took power.  History is not deterministic, but orientations within history are.

With the creation of the third MoU, SYRIZA is implementing a policy that its own leading intellectuals themselves have said will cause Greece to enter into further recession for an indefinite period.

People are still dying from the humanitarian crisis.  This has to stop.

Contemporary Capitalist Political Economy Doing What It Does Best

Under the banner of “hope,” SYRIZA promised an impossible act of staying in Europe, rejecting austerity, and implementing a redistributive social program.

In five months SYRIZA has proved that the quickest way to erode public support is to throw it away in five minutes and propose measures that even your critics couldn’t have imagined.  First Greece was seen as tragedy, now it is a farce.

Most alarming, the forces of the popular struggle have been betrayed by the very political apparatus that claimed to represent them: it is only through the leadership of a party claiming the left mantle such as SYRIZA that the implementation of a third memorandum could ever be tolerated by a Greek electorate.

After winning the referendum and mobilizing the largest contemporary demonstrations in modern Greek history, Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA have committed what can only be called a post-modern coup d’état: combining activist network organization with parliamentary and electoral deceit.

The unique position of SYRIZA being in charge of implementing these agreements as a governing party of the left has eroded the capacity of large-scale mass mobilization to produce recognizable change within the political class of Greece up until this point.

After five years of crisis and multiple coalition governments, the Greek public are worn out of dancing with an exit from the Euro.

Alexis Tsipras speaks to supporters after claiming victory at the January elections.  Photograph by Athanasios Lazarou

Tsipras hasn’t capitulated as the headlines suggest.  He hasn’t been bullied by Merkel, Schäuble, or Germany — such nationalist agitations are unhelpful.  Far from it, he is merely the extension of his and SYRIZA’s own political operations reaching their logical conclusion — operations that were predetermined the moment he, and the party he leads, orientated towards a politics within the existing capitalist political economy.

As the SYRIZA-ANEL dénouement plays out, the problem of our mesmerization by the party narrative and the parliament spectacle is only now being mentioned.  Paul Mason wrote in the Guardian:

Syriza itself is the embodiment of a leftism that always believed you could achieve more in parliament than on the streets.  For the leftwing half of Greek society, though, the result is people continually voting for things more radical than they are prepared to fight for. . . .

When it comes to the now-abandoned Thessaloniki Programme, the radical manifesto on which Alexis Tsipras came to power, there is always talk of implementing it “from below”: that is, demanding so many workers’ rights inside the industries designated for privatisation that it becomes impossible; or implementing the minimum wage through wildcat strikes.  But it never happens.  When strikes are called, it’s by the communists.  When riots happen, it’s the anarchists.  The rest of leftwing Greece is mesmerised by parliament.

More trenchant critique has come from John Pilger:

The day after the January election a truly democratic and, yes, radical government would have stopped every euro leaving the country, repudiated the “illegal and odious” debt — as Argentina did successfully — and expedited a plan to leave the crippling Eurozone.  But there was no plan.  There was only a willingness to be “at the table” seeking “better terms”.

Greece Really Doesn’t Matter

We must stop talking about Greece.  Greece doesn’t matter.  It is merely the keygen to more complicated arguments regarding systemic power struggles within orientations of market capitalism.  We have to stop ceding power to undemocratic institutions such as the ECB, IMF, NATO, and other acronyms that are omnipresent in modern political discourse.  They do not represent the interests of voters.  They have their own interests, be they financial, geopolitical, or politically polyamorous, and these interests are definitely not humanitarian, nor democratic.  They do not come under the same scrutiny as elected bodies.  They do no debate in open forums, but shake hands behind closed doors.

The Eurogroup is not a democratic institution, and the Eurozone was not founded on democratic principles — it was founded on the Maastricht treaty: an open market treaty designed to operate within the functioning of a shared currency.  It’s fundamentally a market mechanism that ties economic growth with closer integration to a central bank.  Open market structures by their very definition are designed to run on inequality.  Markets don’t care about democracy, they care about profit.  The past five months has made that abundantly clear.

What Now?

What is needed is the creation of a new possibility.

What is needed is a politics that works democracy as an emancipatory tool.  If the past five years of Greece proves anything, it’s that a political apparatus seeking to promote change by seeking power within a contemporary capitalist political economy is an approach that has been formally and practically tested and has failed miserably.  SYRIZA had a mandate from an election, a resounding referendum win, and the mobilization of public support.

SRYIZA also had a vocal “left” platform rooted in the ideology of left-Europeanism that emerged out of Eurocommunism.  Make no mistake, the so-called “left platform” of SYRIZA are the worst kind of collaborators, who sought change by seeking power, and when in power used it to help carry out a process that could not but create a third MoU that would go beyond what any of the previous conservative governments had implemented.

The left platform now cry foul of the positions they find themselves in.

The left platform of SYRIZA is an oxymoron: they do not seek change, they did not revolt during the July 11 vote in parliament that proposed over €50b of austerity, hand in hand with parties that implemented the previous memorandums and that by doing so caused the unending humanitarian crisis.  They still communicated in terms orientated towards a solution in keeping with market directives, which proved to be ideologically more derisory when confronted.

And now, as Greek membership to the Eurozone fluctuates on a daily basis, and the third MoU reaches €86b, it is predicted the Greek economy will peak at 200% debt to GDP (again, still measuring the crisis in economic statistics).

What is needed is a change towards a new orientation, beyond the limited horizon of fiscal policy solutions.

That depends on your perspective of how emancipatory political movements should operate and under what principles you consider democracy achievable.  One thing, however, is certain: when the SYRIZA party is gone from the stage it should be buried with Euro coins over its eyes — as it walks the underworld blind to its dogma, those who glimpse its shadow may say: “There goes SYRIZA, the political party who thought the Euro was a beacon worth attaining.”

Change in Greece will not come from short-term strategies and tactics of seeking power, but from a long process of coordinated and planned immanent critiques. This political organization will not aim to represent itself in the machinery of parliament — where the watchful eyes of the IMF and ECB will determine policy — but will emerge from an organized movement comprising the disenfranchised, the working class, and the intellectual vanguard.  It will not compromise.  It will instead operate under an ideology for an emancipatory alliance of humanity removed from the spreadsheet, removed from the NATO, and removed from free-market directives.  It will not seek to claim power in an election, it will be given it by the people themselves when the movement is ripe.

This movement already exists in Athens, yet everyone has been distracted by the sounds of SYRIZA politicians claiming, exalting, and ultimately burying the left narrative.

Everyone has been looking in the wrong places.

It’s not about voting for “deals” and seeking “conditions.”  It’s not about playing politics.  It’s about making demands.  Basic demands, humanitarian demands.  Democratic demands.

Greece doesn’t matter, it never did.

Further Reading

Tyler Durden, “Greece Is Now A Full-Blown Humanitarian Crisis — In 9 Charts,” ZeroHedge.com, July 17, 2015: “Healthcare is one of the public services that has been hit hardest by the crisis.  An estimated 800,000 Greeks are without medical access due to a lack of insurance or poverty.”

Alain Badiou, “Save the Greeks from Their Saviors!” Trans. Anastazia Golemi and Drew S. Burk, The European Graduate School, February 22, 2012: “The EU is preparing to establish an account which would be paid directly to aid Greece but only so that it is used for servicing the debt.  The revenue of the country should be the ‘absolute priority’ devoted to repay creditors, and, if necessary, paid directly to the account managed by the European Union.”

Paul Mason, “Greece Put Its Faith in Democracy But Europe Has Vetoed the Result,” Guardian, July 13, 2015: “The real problem is not the politicians.  It is the eurozone’s inability to contain the democratic wishes of 19 electorates.”

Max Höfer, “There’s No End in Sight to the Greco-European Drama,” Guardian, July 15, 2015: “The punchline of this declaration of surrender is that it was signed by a radical leftist rebel, who stepped up with the aim of mobilising the whole of Europe against the German chancellor’s austerity diktats.  With his provocations and a delaying tactic, with no independent political design visible behind it, Tsipras has failed drastically.”

Suzanne Daley and James Kanter, “Greece, Its Back to the Wall, Adopts Austerity Steps,” New York Times, July 15, 2015: “Members of Syriza welcomed the I.M.F. report.  Dimitrios Papadimoulis, a member of the European Parliament who is close to the prime minister, said that the fund’s position could be helpful in the long run but that did not make Wednesday’s parliamentary vote any less urgent.”

Dylan Matthews, “Vox Sentences: IMF Decides Greece Is Getting Too Boring, Concocts Scheme to Make It Interesting,” Vox, July 15, 2015: “Enter the IMF, which insisted on reducing Greece’s overall debt load, by just forgiving some debt or by not requiring payments until 2059 (!) or by making other governments pay for Greece’s budget.  Put another way: it wants the EU to become a fiscal union like the US, where members pay each others’ bills.”

Mark Gilbert, “One Thing Europe Got Right in Greece’s Crisis,” BloombergView, July 16, 2015: “But even as Greece’s situation worsened over time, the euro’s gyrations have become more and more compressed.  And this month’s 2.8 percent range is the smallest since the current anti-austerity Greek government came to power in January.”

Richard Seymour, “Against Rationalisation,” Versobooks.com, July 13, 2015: “So it is important to be clear: if Syriza supports and implements this deal, it is over.  It will not recover.  It may exist as a party, but as a force of the radical left it will be all but redundant.”

John Milios, “The Class Logic Behind Austerity Policies In the Euro-Area: Can SYRIZA Put Forward a Progressive Alternative?” NON, Non.copyriot.com, July 21, 2015: “The policy of the SYRIZA government can only become hegemonic if it clearly supports the interests of the working majority in their struggle against capital.  There is no room for a policy generally and loosely defending everything ‘Greek’ or ‘European’.  Such an approach never has, and never will represent the perspective of the Left.”

Cognord, “Is it Possible to Win the War After Losing All the Battles? “ Brooklyn Rail, February 5, 2015: “What is needed is not an analysis on the basis of a non-existent theoretical framework (Syriza’s supposed radicalism), but a sober understanding of the historical context of Syriza’s rise to fame, the objective forces that it is facing, and its own proposed remedies.”

John Pilger, “The Problem of Greece Is Not Only a Tragedy.  It Is a Lie.” JohnPilger.com, July 13, 2015: “The true nature of Syriza has been seldom examined and explained.  To the foreign media it is no more than ‘leftist’ or ‘far left’ or ‘hardline’ —  the usual misleading spray.  Some of Syriza’s international supporters have reached, at times, levels of cheer leading reminiscent of the rise of Barack Obama.  Few have asked: Who are these ‘radicals’?  What do they believe in?”

Athanasios (Nasi) Lazarou is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, working on the intersection between architectural space and politics in the Greek crisis.  He may be contacted via <www.athanasioslazarou.com>.