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  • Published in Opinion
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Photo: Reuters

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Photo: Reuters

Syriza's leadership is walking a tightrope between the demands of the troika and the express will of its base and of the majority of the Greek electorate

Two hostile intersecting axes are forming against the Syriza-led government in Athens.

Together they comprise an increasingly cohered effort to destabilise and defeat the government, to usurp the democratically expressed hope of the Greek people to break from the iron cage of austerity.

The first axis, from without, has been evident since before the 20 February deal in which the troika of creditors blackmailed Athens into accepting the principle of a new austerity memorandum.

As opponents of that deal, such as Manolis Glezos, Syriza MEP and hero of the war of liberation against the Nazi occupation of the country in WWII, argued at the time, the agreement far from providing a breathing space for the government locked it in to a four-month course of permanent demands from the troika to force through the very austerity measures and neoliberal reforms which were comprehensively rejected at the ballot box.

Over the last month, the violation of democracy and of sovereignty – in the sense that it resides in the democratic will of the people – which the deal enshrines has become increasingly transparent and flagrant.

Far from being the guarantor of democracy and of civil liberties, the EU and troika institutions have through the imposition of austerity systematically generated authoritarian and chauvinist tendencies. Reality is the opposite of the authenticating claim of the EU in the high period of expansion: the 1980s into the 2000s.

There were in that period diminishing differences between the centre-right and centre-left over the extent of social democratic welfarism within the increasingly free trade area.

Where there was ab initio unanimity was over confidence that EU institutions would vouchsafe democracy, the rule of law and the liberal capitalist state in the benighted Balkans, backward East and other unfortunate recesses of the civilised continent.

Even the oriental despotism of Turkey was to become modernised through the beneficence of echt Europa, l’Europe authentique, proper Europe: a “white” Europe, where “whiteness by permission” was granted to those conforming to neoliberal orthodoxy; equally light-skinned Europeans of the periphery were considered “black” the more their national economies sank into the red.

It was possible for the political class in Greece in that period to point across the Aegean Sea to their slightly more eastern, “blacker” neighbour to encourage an ideological compensation for the material burdens born by the mass of Greeks. In popular circulation was a kind of “psychological wage”, to borrow a metaphor coined by Black US radical WEB Dubois: whatever the long hours and low pay, at least you’re free, unlike the poor Turk.  

Since the onset of the Great Recession, the material burden has become unbearable. The psychological wage has also gone.

The direct intervention of the EU and troika in November 2011 was responsible for the imposition on Greece of the first unelected prime minister since the fall of the Junta over four decades prior. Lucas Papademos, a banker, took over from Pasok’s George Papandreou when he had the temerity to suggest that there should be a referendum on Greece on the second austerity memorandum.

The government of Antonis Samaras which followed was not only increasingly authoritarian in the areas of policing, criminal justice, civil liberties and immigration. It also took to flouting parliamentary procedures and governing by executive edict rather than by legislative vote. The guardians of democracy and the rule of law in the European Commission and European Court of Justice didn’t bat an eyelid. Indeed, they had encouraged and welcomed the formation of a government which included the far right LAOS party, a home for veteran fascists.

In response to the election of Syriza in January of this year, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, selected last year with the support of Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, said that the treaties Greece had signed up to were immune from such trifles as the Greek people’s democratic will.

Now the lopping of democratic outcomes implicit in the loan-shark extortion of the Greek government is giving over to explicit interference in the internal democratic processes of the country itself.

An unnamed EU official told the Financial Times last week: “Tsipras has to decide whether he wants to be prime minister or the leader of Syriza.”

Marlon Brando in The Godfather could be no blunter. Another (unelected) official said, “This government cannot survive.”

I don’t know in which language that was originally said. But in English, “cannot survive” has a sinister ambiguity: won’t be able to/must not be allowed to.

In either case, the European bureaucracies are not disinterested observers calculating objective odds. They are actively working to neuter this government or to bring it down. How?

Domesticating Syriza

The strategy of grinding down the still fresh ministerial forces and MPs on the government’s side remains the cutting edge. The next crunch-point is set at the full Eurozone meeting in Riga, Latvia, in two weeks time. On cue, the Latvian prime minister this week impertinently slated Alexis Tsipras for undermining what is laughably called “European solidarity” by holding two days of talks with Vladimir Putin in Moscow and speaking against EU sanctions on Russia.

The effort to domesticate Syriza, to turn it into a variant of social liberalism – the enervated, now neoliberal parties of European social democracy, calls forth a good cop/bad cop tactic. Undiplomatic threats and confrontational rhetoric, as is the custom of German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, on the one hand and the python embrace of politically bankrupt centre-left politicians on the other.

European social democracy, however, is not content to play only the soft cop. It is also issuing those offers which cannot be refused. That’s the role of the French president Francois Hollande and his prime minister Manuel Vals.

The scintilla of political difference Hollande, then under some pressure from Jean-Luc Melenchon to his left, opened up with the centre-right when he was elected three years ago has closed.

Facing a resurgent right – and the ambitions of Marine Le Pen’s chameleon-fascist Front National – he has launched his re-election bid with a wholesale capitulation to neoliberalism, red in tooth and claw. Gone are the promises of taxing the 1 percent and cutting the working week for the other 99; in are pledges for full scale labour market and pension “reform”. Hundreds of thousands struck in France last week against such measures.

Much is in flux in European politics. One thing is certain. There is no sign whatsoever of the centre-left breaking with the austerity straightjacket. Among the most belligerent agonists ranged against Athens, and against the working people of Europe, is Jeoren Dijsselbloem, the social democratic Dutch finance minister who wants a second term as capo bastone of the euro-mafia.

The great dilemma facing those who are trying to force Syriza to negate the hopes invested in it is that the outcome of the January election was not only decisive, it also chiseled a milestone in the long, drawn out disintegration of the political props – Pasok and New Democracy – which had provided alternating, pro-capitalist governments and a period of political stability lasting 35 years.

When left social democratic governments in France and Greece in the early 1980s ran up against the international markets and the demands to reorganise European capitalism along Thatcher-Reagan lines there were coherent political alternatives in the form of the centre-right to take their place. They provided an anvil against which the hammer of capitalist economic brute force could beat the social democratic left into submission.

That does not exist in Greece. Such a political instrument has to be created. And doing so is the second arm of the vice being tightened from without. It’s an uphill job. Pasok, for example, held office for most of the lat 40 years. Now its share of the vote is down to around 5 percent while the party’s debt stands at an eye-watering 150 million euros. Party managers took out bank loans four years ago in anticipation of achieving their habitual 30+ percent share of the vote and therefore a commensurate share of state funding for political parties and access to the European Parliament gravy train. You would think that those who have demonstrated such staggering personal financial ineptitude would be a little shier in offering themselves as the white knights ready to solve the nation’s fiscal crisis.

Yet the calls for Alexis Tsipras to dump the left of his party and move towards a national government with the pro-memorandum forces of the centre left – Pasok and To Potami in parliament and unelected residues of the social democratic base in civil and state institutions – have become louder and more frequent. They started with op-ed columns six weeks ago. In today’s incestuous 24-hour media-political nexus it is rare to find disinterested reporting and analysis. Pundits’ analyses become hooks for news stories. They in turn elicit politicians’ responses, which provide further material for punditry and the cycle begins again. Each turn of the wheel is lubricated by the news organisations, think tanks and policy functionaries who are tied together through a cash nexus linking university professors to media corporations, which have direct stakes in the political outcomes.

A pro-memorandum government?

As I wrote early in March, the chorus has settled on a single hymn – form a pro-memorandum government with Pasok and To Potami, which have between them 30 seats in the parliament – dump the left. It is an open question how many of Syriza’s left would actually break or be broken away. One story two weeks ago indicated that the prime minister’s office had singled out 15 “disloyal” elements. Goes the mantra: break also with, or split, ANEL, the anti-memorandum right wing nationalists who have 13 seats.

Forcing a split within Syriza and of the leading majority from the voter base of the party is, of course, no easy matter. Hence the other axis, from within, which is driving into the government and coming from the right.

New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras looked shell-shocked back in January. There were signs of revolt and of a leadership challenge within his defeated party, which itself is a roof under which hard right chauvinists, old patrician Christian Democrats and Thatcher-Blairite “modenisers” uneasily cohabit in a ménage a trois.

He’s recovered some poise. His twin-pronged attack on the government – orchestrated in collaboration with figures in the state and even on the government benches in parliament – is the charge of incompetence, and weakness over law and order.

There are two factors which allow some political space for the (grossly hypocritical and false) charge of incompetence. First, the chimerical character of the government – a coalition of the radical left and chauvinist right – entails a permanent tension which manifests itself on occasion in contradictory statements by ministers, conflicting briefings and other media morsels. That is a parlous state, which ought swiftly be ended with the left, which has 149 seats, asserting itself forcefully over the right.

Second, the leading group in Syriza is walking a tightrope between the demands of the troika and the express will of its base and of the majority of the electorate in Greece to break with austerity. The party grew spectacularly thanks to enormous social resistance in Greece over the past seven years to austerity, state authoritarianism and racism. That leaves its mark not merely upon but also within the party.

While there is a high concentration in the parliament and in the upper echelons of long standing political figures – mainly hailing from the largest component part of Syriza, the 25-yearold Synaspismos party – the workers and social movements have brought fresh forces into the party. Despite a radical constitutional change two years ago when Syriza moved from being an federated coalition to a party with much greater levels of centralisation around the leadership, the political culture remains more plural than in the old social democratic parties.

Creating a more coherent message from government ministers by returning to the course set and pledges made in Thessaloniki last September and during the election, both of them democratically endorsed within the party last year, would be very welcome. Enforcing a unified message by silencing the left who are in favour of such a turn back towards the agreed programme would most definitely be not.  

The second line of attack by the right, and much more menacing, is over law and order, larded with racism and strong-state rhetoric. There was a minor street confrontation following an anarchist demonstration which ended up in Exarcheia Square, at the back of the Polytechnic last week. I happened in to it By the standards of such things in Greece it was in actuality a piece of street theatre. A few burning garbage dumpsters, a couple of cars set alight, some ritualistic stone throwing from one side and percussion grenades from the other.

The following day New Democracy seized on it with an artful line complaining of the government failing to get a grip on “hooded youths” who were running riot. The hooded reference was cute. There is currently a liberalising criminal justice bill going through the parliament. One of its provisions is to abolish the brutalising C-type prisons which the last government introduced as almost its final legislative act. The prisons and a hunger strike by some prisoners were the subjects of the anarchist demonstration.

Some 28 Syriza MPs have introduced an amendment to the bill calling for the scrapping of another piece of New Democracy era punitive legislation. It provided additional sentencing for anyone who commits a crime while wearing a hoodie. It’s very similar to the anti-youth hoodie clampdown in Britain a few years ago.

The New Democracy line is beyond scattergun scaremongering over law and order. It is honed to jemmy into the government and to cleave open divisions. Samaras’s tacitic finds two sets of bedfellows – a second ménage a trois.

First, there are the parliamentary parties of the centre-left. True to their subservience to the interests of Greek and European capitalism, these fanatics for staying in the euro are as prepared as the EU bureaucracies to play fast and loose with the liberal principles they purportedly defend.

Prison reform in the 19th century was midwife to the birth of mass, liberal political parties across the modern world. Now, the great liberal centrists of To Potami are attacking the move to close inhumane dungeons. Pasok is accusing the government of going “soft on terrorism” because another of the bill’s measures provides for long-term prisoners who have served a large part of their sentence but who are severely disabled to complete the rest under house arrest. The reform would cover the leader of the defunct November 17 terrorist group. He is 98 percent blind and no threat to anyone.

Second, there are allies on the government benches for the strong state, law and order push. And they are not only from the illiberal ANEL. The minister of public order, with responsibility for the police, John Panousis is from Dimar – the modernising, essentially Blairite breakaway from Syriza to its right.

He recently wrote an op-ed in Ta Nea, the historic paper of Pasok, lambasting the government for being soft on law and order. He accused the left of “nihilism”. That was a highly politically charged intervention which associated fellow ministers with anarchist protestors who had invaded the grounds of parliament. It was not his first such intervention. On taking office, he sided with a senior police officer who issued an unauthorised memorandum to stations saying, in effect, that the police could now do nothing much over illegal immigrants as the new government’s policy amounted to letting them all in.

The police commander had almost certainly concerted his intervention with Samaras. Panousis flagrantly misrepresented the government’s position and interfered in the ministerial responsibility of left wing Syriza MP and human rights lawyer Tasia Christodoulopoulou. She is the minister for immigration, who will begin this week piloting a bill to allow access to citizenship for some children of immigrants who do not have it. That will become a major line of political division.

No action was taken against Panousis. Indeed, when last week there were attempts to reorganise the apparatus of government to move his office under the cabinet minister for justice, Nikos Paraskevolpoulous, another left wing human rights champion, the junior minister objected and it did not happen.

A second sinister provocation against the government and the left has also gone without even reprimand. On the Independence Day parade on 25 March a group of special forces soldiers chanted bellicose, anti-Turkish slogans boasting of invading Istanbul and hoisting the Greek flag. Many observers, foreign and domestic, were shocked. Left Syriza MP Vasiliki Katrivanou called for action against nests of ultra-nationalists and the far right within the repressive apparatuses of the state.

When a few years ago a similar incident occurred the soldiers responsible – professionals, not national servicemen – were prosecuted. This time there was not even a perfunctory investigation. The minister of defence is Panos Kammenos. He is the leader of ANEL.

That the sights of an incipient authoritarian push are focused more widely than upon groups on the fringes of the anarchist scene or upon protecting the “honour” of Greece’s equivalent of Britain’s SAS assassins became clear to all last weekend. There were violent clashes in Skouries on the Halkidiki peninsula. There a Canadian open cast mining operation is devastating the environment and threatening to withdraw investment unless it is allowed to despoil further.

There has been a huge movement against the operation. Some 10,000 people demonstrated in nearby Thessalonki two weeks ago. Unfortunately, the miners’ leaders have turned the union over to serve the company. The police stood idly by last weekend while miners, acting for the company not in pursuit of their interests as workers who will have to live in the same polluted environment as everyone else, attacked protesters.

For Panousis, it was not an example of US-style company unionism in collaboration with the local unelected state assaulting both people and democracy in the manner of the Pinkerton private security forces or – the same thing – a mafia-run wharf as depicted in On the Waterfront. He adduced the confrontation as evidence of a breakdown of law and order. Just as conservative university managers have made a hue and cry in Athens about the ongoing occupation of their admin building.

Immigration

Into this noxious mix were released figures last week showing a four-fold increase in the number of people “illegally” entering Greece. Probably 40 percent of them are refugees from Syria, whose first European sanctuary is Greece. They are not, in fact and law, automatically illegal even by the draconian and racist standards of Schengen and therefore Greek asylum policy. But in a dangerous slippage from 18 months ago when official Greece was forced by the anti-racist movement to bestow pariah status on the fascists, Golden Dawn representatives were invited by sections of the media to opine about the latest statistic.

It was actually Samaras who used his parliamentary speech over the latest turn in the government’s negotiations with the troika to focus on immigration. He has provided a portmanteau into which may be fitted all manner of claims about national chaos, losing control of the borders, and a breakdown of law and order.

“It feels like we are under siege,” he says. His image of law-abiding Greeks assailed by immigrants and by feral, anarchist youth is antithetical to the actual siege state of siege on the Greek people and its government laid by capital, domestic and European. The right is collaborating with those forces in a serious attempt to construct an alternative political pole to the left’s.

It is in the force field created by the twin axes from within and without that the governmental and parliamentary political formations are navigating and also responding to the social movements, which show signs of greater activity. (Something I’ll return to in the next article).

It is also subtly influencing the calculus each party or party faction is crunching through when it comes to the contentious decisions they will have to make over legislation, political positions and courses of action over the next set of compromises Athens will make with the troika, and whether to activate their political support in protests, demonstrations or other forms of extra parliamentary action.

It may well be that in order to pass any liberalisation of the citizenship laws for immigrant children – and the early signs are that what is proposed will be far short both of what immigrants have fought for and what might plausibly be won – Syriza will have to rely on votes from some MPs of the centre-left. ANEL has historically opposed such moves with barely muted racist arguments.

That eventuality sets alarm bells ringing on the left – inside Syriza and without. For it would provide in example the contours of an alternative governing majority which so far has been promoted only in theory: a coalition of the left with the pro-memorandum centre-left. It would be a catastrophe, however, were the left to respond to that prospect by not pressing for the most far-reaching measures to end the scandal of children born in Greece, educated there and wholly part of the society being denied citizenship.

Such a morally-bankrupt course would sunder the connection between the left in Greece and i) the migrant communities who cleave wholly to the left, ii) the anti-racist forces in the society which are the bedrock of the fight against the right and far right and iii) the European, internationalist left and social movements upon which the left in Greece says it relies in order to open a second front against the troika.

There is a deceptive logic to the argument that in order to prevent an explicitly pro-memorandum government emerging it is necessary to cleave to a halfway house, a patriotic-left position which can keep the national chauvinists of ANEL onboard. But that logic leads not only to the nullifying compromises which the government has made over the austerity memorandums. It means, despite Syriza having 149 MPs to ANEL’s 13, that this government turns into something more of ANEL than it does of the left.

And because of the sustained strong state push by the right which is not in government (and which is pro-memorandum), adapting to Kammenos’s authoritarian chauvinists will not preclude a more pro-memorandum government. It will weaken this one. That will make a national government – both pro-memorandum and socially authoritarian – more likely.

Understanding the precise political logic is vital. That’s why there were exquisitely nuanced discussions I was fortunate to happen into this last week among the protesting workers of the ERT national broadcaster in central Athens, finance ministry cleaners and school staff demanding immediate reinstatement, and young people (a few not so young) “actively observing” the little riot at the back of the Polytechnic. It is above all in among these groups and their like that the logjam may be broken. Not in the last instance (whose lonely hour never strikes). But determinedly and now.

To declare that one is different, that one is doing politics differently, that all is new and will become newer still in this ever-renewing new world - that is easy enough. Escaping the iron grip of the old, however, is not so readily accomplished.

The soaring hope of January’s victory confronts the leaden weight of the past. It seems so obvious, at such moments of crisis, to adopt the old calculus – the one which every other parliamentary force is utilising. But were we to restrict ourselves merely to nudging across the beads of that abacus, the game is lost.

It’s not some moral imperative that makes the case for a radical break with the prison of politics inherited from Greece’s recent past: the false dilemma of choosing between social freedom and social security (though such a break would point to the highest ethic). It’s not even the argument of the peculiarly, and minority, revolutionary strand of the left.

It is the actual conclusion that must be drawn if the left is to be true not only to itself and its avowed purpose, but, much more importantly, to those who have invested precious hope in us.

T-Shirt

Kevin Ovenden's reportage from Greece for radical online media is funded as an act of practical solidarity by the self­styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' aka Philosophy Football.

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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