Kevin Ovenden takes stock after Syriza's first two months in office
“Hope is coming. Europe is changing. Greece is going forward.”
Two months into Syriza taking office after the historic victory of the left at the polls on 25 January, dare we hope for a breach in the iron cage of austerity? Is hope even alive?
My answer is an unequivocal “yes”. That’s not down to facile optimism or self-delusion as to the course the government of Alexis Tsipras has followed. Nor am I unmindful of the huge difficulties or of the scale of the assault from the Troika.
Rather, hope is alive because it arises ultimately from the initiative, courage, struggles and mutual solidarity of the popular masses in Greece, which lifted the whole of the left at the polls and put Syriza in power. And that wellspring is far from exhausted.
Far too much is at stake, and the picture too kaleidoscopic, to take anyone’s word for that. So let’s look at how popular sentiment has developed since the election, among the working class bases of the left’s support.
It is worth recalling just how refreshing Syriza’s slogan was in today’s Europe of ironclad consensus between the parties of the centre-right and centre-left over the policies of austerity and neo-liberal capitalism.
Francois Hollande’s bid for the French presidency in 2012 had a glint of optimism, thanks to it catching some rays from Jean-Luc Melenchon’s radical left campaign, which crescendoed with a starburst of energy at the Place de Bastille.
Within a year the lights were out all over Hollande’s presidency. We were left with France’s answer to German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble – a dull, provincial, tax lawyer.
The socialist political tradition I come from was bound up with the late Tony Cliff. As early as the 1997 election which brought Tony Blair to office in Britain Cliff was regaling audiences with how social democracy had gone from offering the great hope of 1945 to promising just not to be as bad as the Thatcherite right in office.
At the end of last year in Greece it was not that people were brimming with optimism, so that all that Syriza had to do was articulate that and be carried aloft. Opinion surveys last October showed a depressed public spirit. Actual mental distress and emotional pain were at staggering levels.
It was from the moment the government fell just before New Year’s Eve that a tidal change in sentiment began to take place. Even many friends on the left had believed the government would survive. We’ll return to how easy it is to miss the underlying change in mood.
As I wrote in January, the election campaign did not bring jubilant crowds or joyously hopeful eruptions at rallies or in spontaneous gatherings. There was a considered optimism. People hoped to hope.
That feeling among working people rested on accumulated reflections on the last intense six years which have brought huge levels of social mobilisation against austerity, catastrophic economic collapse and hardship, and a testing to destruction of previous political loyalties.
While people looked to the election of a Syriza government to break the log jam it is too simplistic – indeed condescending – to import a secular tale of Christ the redeemer: his people were despairing, Alexis Tsipras appeared and brought them hope.
Nor does the narrative which often follows, of betrayal and salvation, fit. In and of themselves, defeat for or betrayal by the Syriza government are not the royal road to something better on the left.
Fausto Bertinotti of the Italian party which inspired the formation of Syriza, Rifandazione Comunista, created a huge sense of betrayal when he took it into a government supporting the war of occupation in Afghanistan. The Italian left has yet to recover.
The left does not grow out of betrayals, an old Greek friend of mine often says. And worsening conditions of life are no guarantee of radicalisation either. As Irish national liberationists put it at the onset of the Great Famine 160 years ago, “Starvation is no friend of revolution.”
The acute humanitarian crisis in Greece continues. In popular mood – and in the prospects for popular advance – what is happening is a complex process of conflicting responses to that grim reality and to the government’s performance in sticking to its promise to change it.
Syriza’s polling popularity remains higher now than it was when it won January’s general election - well over 40 percent in voting intention. The old parties continue to flat-line, though there have been twitches of life of late from their leaders.
On closer inspection, the opinion polls – for all their limitations – tell us more than who is considered better or even “less bad”.
A poll last week found that there is continuing majority public support for the government’s negotiating tactics with the Troika. But it has steadily declined in the last eight weeks: the numbers are down from 72 percent on 5 Feb, to 60.2 percent on 26 Feb, and 56.5 at the end of March.
A poll for Metron on 21 March gave Syriza 47.8 percent if there were an election that weekend. In the same poll 60 percent of respondents said it was the EU and Troika who should make concessions.
That is in keeping with earlier polling which showed that it was the perception that the Greek government was prepared to stand up for the working people of the country against the Troika that lies at the heart of continued support.
Alongside and interwoven with hope is another powerful political sentiment: indignation. It’s then little surprise, as they say, that the self identification thrown up by the huge M15 occupation of the squares movement in the Spanish state in 2011 and its imitator in Greece was: Indignados, Αγανακτισμένοι– the Indignant or Outraged.
The Eurozone politicians and the Troika seem to think that it is just a matter of forcing a youthful and naïve government in Athens to face reality and then to use its political capital to sell to the population policies which were rejected at the election: hope giving way to despair and a sullen sense of betrayal.
Despair may come from hopes dashed. But it is not automatic. Especially when hope is fused with righteous anger.
Further, in an era of great volatility in support for parties at the polls – the rapid rise of Syzria from a toehold in parliament to forming a government, is an example – the stock of political capital is much more perishable and liable to rapid depreciation than it once was.
Whether the result is demoralisation and openings for the right or for the centre to recover, or whether it leads to hope being invested elsewhere and indignation boiling over is open.
Centrally, it depends upon the mobilisation and awareness of people themselves, just as the occupation of the squares, repeated general strikes and other mass struggles are what drove the rise of the left.
Manifestation of desire
Six weeks ago, during the negotiations which led to the 20 February deal between the Troika and Greece, thousands of people responded to a social media call to gather in the centre of Athens to show support for the government against the Troika. After the deal was signed, a few hundred gathered in protest, thought the numbers on the left who were unhappy were much greater.
The pro-government demonstrations were not about giving a carte blanche to the government. The later protests were not kneejerk oppositionism. But they were both representative of two emergent political poles, within wider social movements and popular mood.
The big anti-racist mobilisation over a week ago said something of the movements and the mood. It both drew confidence from having a government of the left which has promised to meet key demands of the movement – such as citizenship for the children of all immigrants – and at the same time maintained an independence and impatience, urging action now and completely, and pointing to a reckoning with the defeated right sooner rather than later.
One of the social struggles in recent years which had the most direct and decisive political impact was the occupation of the state broadcaster, ERT, in the summer of 2013 when the government announced its closure. The work-in forced the departure form the governing coalition of Dimar, a split from Syriza to its right. That left the government more than just numerically depleted. It was reduced to the old discredited dynastic parties – New Democracy and Pasok.
The ERT work-in continues. In Athens the workforce was evicted, so it broadcasts online. Elsewhere in Greece there are radio and television transmissions by journalists and crew who have created new ways of working, but do so unpaid. The government has promised to re-open ERT.
This Saturday will see a caravan – a convoy – head down from Thessaloniki to lead a protest and rally in Athens by ERT workers and others demanding that the station is reopened, the workers paid and the broadcaster run on the new not the old lines.
It is again a sign of confidence – in part encouraged by the result of the election in January – but in any case mindful of the crisis facing the country, but not constrained into a passivity which easily leaves hope forlorn. The same could be said of the Athens Metro workers who struck two weeks ago, or the port workers in Piraeus, who struck only last July and reforged a union on the privatised piers.
They are discussing what action to take now following stories at the weekend that the government will do a U-turn on its very popular announcement in its first week and will sell its stake in the port.
A further barometer is in the internal elections at general assemblies of trade unions. Results continue to show a swing to the left. Where Syriza loses support it goes further to its left, not the candidate lists of Pasok or New Democracy.
If people are despairing and broken, they don’t vote in such elections for candidates who tell them that they will have to be prepared to strike and demonstrate and take other action. Those are circumstances which favour the right and the fascists.
The popular mobilisations against the troika and pressuring the government from the left are no on the scale where the right and its bases in the concentrations of state and economic power are marginalised and a radical alternative to the policy of negotiation alone with the Troika posed.
But precisely because the hope invested in the government was measured so has it not evaporate with the first whiff of gunshot and setback.
Just as on the eve of the election campaign it is at the molecular levels of community and social organisation that the processes can be seen which may pile cumulatively and bring sudden eruptions in mass consciousness and collective activity.
Changing Europe – international aspirations
At the level of words alone, the whole of the left in Greece lays store by the development of the social struggles. In an interview at the weekend, minister for energy and production, and leader of the Left Platform within Syriza, Pangiotis Lafaznis said, “Syriza have only one mandate and only one choice: to go forward with our principles, our values and our program, resting on the better historical traditions and social struggles.”
It is of course a vexed question how to encourage those struggles at the same time as presenting a common front against the Troika and the enemies the Greek people face on the right.
Everyone is free to hold an opinion on such matters. But they will gain a hearing only if on the basis of engaging where you are in the practical social struggle: solidarity on an internationalist basis.
There too, there are important resources of hope.
At the end of last week a delegation of a dozen councillors, trade unionists and community activists from London’s East End arrived to a terrific reception in Athens.
On Saturday night they were received at a large event hosted by the Bangladeshi immigrant union in Athens. East London is home to the largest Bangladeshi community outside of Bangladesh.
Among those receiving them were the heroes of Greek labour, the strawberry pickers of Manolada. These Bangladeshi agricultural workers went on strike to recover unpaid wages and were shot at by their foremen.
The delegation visited parliament, social centres, trade unions, the anti-fascist movement, Athens city council and met a range of political forces whichg make up Syriza and Greece’s vibrant left.
At her specific invitation the delegation was received on Sunday by the speaker of the Greek parliament, she is the highest ranking woman in the Greek government and the third most powerful according to the Greek constitution.
Throughout its two and half days the delegation’s discussions ranged from forging links and practical solidarity, trade union twinning arrangements (the Unison, NUT and Unite Community unions were on the delegation along with the union-backed Greece Solidarity Campaign), through what to do to support the prosecution of the fascists and the common struggle across the EU against racism.
That it was accorded among the highest level receptions of any solidarity delegation since the Syriza government was formed is telling. For the highest ranking of the delegation was the deputy leader of a London borough, not speaker of a national parliament.
But something has happened over the years in the East End of London. It goes to the heart of how the hope of January in Athens is preserved and spread.
Solidarity is not party-partisan. But it is of great significance that the councillors of Mayor Lutfur Rahman's administration in Tower Hamlets, East London, were elected to the left of the Labour Party.
They stood for opposing austerity, for Palestine and for just anti-imperialist struggles everywhere, and they faced a barely coded racist campaign by the establishment parties which claimed they stood only for "their own community" and not for all working people.
They won. Not just once, but twice. In so doing they built on the breakthrough of 2005 when George Galloway took one of the borough’s two parliamentary seats off a warmongering, neo-liberal Labour incumbent.
And that in itself was the political expression of an huge social eruption – the movement against the Iraq in 2003, which swept up the majority of people in East London and propelled them forward into the brick wall of a profoundly undemocratic and unresponsive national political setup.
A second component on of the delegation were the two largest trade unions in the area, both of which organise council employees: the Unison union and the National Union of Teachers.
For many years the local branches of both unions have been led by people who have placed a premium upon bottom up democracy, encouraging active members and, while leading workplace struggles and militancy, encouraging a vision of trade unionism which is beyond the narrow and sectional.
On of East London’s NUT members was called Blair Peach. He was killed by the police 36 years ago on an anti-fascist protest.
The fascist BNP briefly managed to get a councilor elected in East London 22 years ago. The day he turned up to his office, every member of the Unison union in that building walked out. Six months later, after a huge campaign by the community, trade unions and a left united in struggle – he was out. Today alienation from the old decrepit parties finds a positive and welcome expression in East London.
A third part of the delegation was from the Greece Solidarity Campaign, which has combined trade union support, communities and activists to fan the flames of solidarity and from the Unite the Union Community Branch in East London.
The community branch is a product of the kind of creative thinking we could do more of. Britain’s largest union launched the initiative in East London to try to provide some organisation for those out of work, to extend the principles of collectivity beyond the workplace.
There’s much to discuss and learn from the experience. Many Greek friends receiving the delegation listened intently to the young Bangladeshi chair of the branch as she explained how it works and the difficulties.
While making all necessary adjustments of scale Deputy Mayor of Tower Hamlets Oliur Rahman won nods of recognition as he explained that the experience of Tower Hamlets being isolated and assailed by both Tory and Labour, starved of funds by central government, and being the only resisting-council of its type in England gave him a little insight to the dilemmas facing the Greek government and its supporters.
‘The only true prophets are they who carve out the future which they announce‘
A friend of mine on reminded me on Facebook the other day of that quotation from the great Irish socialist James Connolly.
Too often, I think, there can be an unrealistic expectation of the process – as if all we had to do is look at picture of Michelangelo’s David, pick up a lump hammer and set to on a piece of rock. Hey presto – a work of art. More likely a pile of rubble.
What is being attempted in Greece – and in Tower Hamlets for that matter – is very difficult. Mistakes are bound to be made and different strategies put to the test, some found wanting.
I was going to say something about the norms we should strive for on a newly revitalised left if we are to navigate those rapids in solidarity but maintaining an organised debate – which means arguments and changing of minds – and unity of purpose. But I’ll have to return to that.
On this, the first day of the official British general election campaign, let me settle on this.
As my friend Stathis Kouvelakis put it recently, time is not on our side. What there is no time for is for good people on the left to be consumed bemoaning that we don’t have a Syriza or Greek-style left in Britain.
I’d suggest that next to that in misspent effort is taking the trappings of a Syriza and imagining that the real thing will form inside – sort of mistaking taking a photo of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in Florence and mistaking that for carving your own.
There are many important debates and conversations to be had if we are to seize this moment and build a left response to the ongoing crisis. They include – how to organise the precariat and unemployed? What kind of trade unionism has a future? How can we break the stranglehold of the old parties? What does international solidarity look like in the 21st century? And what kind of constitutional change do we want?
Without for a minute foreclosing debate, every single one of those questions has found an embodied practical answer (certainly not the only one) in aspects of the delegation which came from the East End of London to Athens, and has returned last night with a piece of hope.
There are other developments in other parts of the country. The coalition of forces which produced the shock defeat of Labour in what it treated as a rotten borough, Bradford West, three years ago, is assembling again. It has a fighting chance of returning George Galloway to a parliament which, whatever it looks like on 8 May, will be lacking all authority and much legitimacy.
Each advance of each of these developments is worth a hundred castles in the air. They are real because they live on the hinge between the social struggles and shifting sentiments of masses, and the political breakthrough of a radically different politics and way of doing it.
There is no cause at all from Greece for people in Britain or elsewhere to despair and pronounce their (perhaps exaggerated) hopes dead. And the last thing people in Greece need is for their own example to end up as an excuse for ignoring the very real shoots of hope which are there in Britain on the grounds that they aren’t good enough.
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 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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