What was the great objective behind 19th-century liberalism? It was, as Marx never tired of pointing out, to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter while leaving the economic sphere to capital. It is liberalism’s splendid success in achieving this long-held goal that we are now observing. —Yanis Varoufakis
Days after the January 25 election that brought the left party Syriza to power in Greece, its eloquent and highly rational new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, rode his 1300cc Yamaha straight at the Berlin Wall. Stopping off to shake hands with potential (if unlikely) allies in Paris and in London, seizing the world’s attention with his raptor’s glare and bright-blue tieless shirts, he emerged from his first meeting with Wolfgang Schäuble, his German counterpart, to break the frame of European politicians’ coded, business-as-usual encounters with the press.
Schäuble spoke somewhat hesitantly of rules and tax inspectors and agreeing to disagree; Varoufakis spoke with passion of the European project, of the need to respect the continuity of Europe’s institutions without crushing the “fragile flower” of democracy. He described Greece’s humanitarian crisis and warned of the dangers ahead should his government fail, asking for Germany’s help against the resurgence of Nazism in Greece, which had fought so hard against it. And, in requesting time to free Greece from its debt trap, he didn’t evade his country’s own responsibilities, referring to Greece’s “flimsy business model” and to Syriza’s determination to push through deep reforms, combating tax evasion and corruption as well as restarting the economy.
For most Greeks, Varoufakis’s frankness came as a huge relief: an open acknowledgment at the heart of European power of the truth as they are living it, an appeal made not as a supplicant but as an equal partner. For others (or often the same ones), it was terrifying: the long-awaited and desired confrontation risked a break with Europe, which is not what the vast majority of Greeks now want. In Germany, Varoufakis’s manner was read as arrogance and rudeness. One German MP asked if he could be replaced; Schäuble said he pitied the Greeks for electing “an irresponsible government.”
The negotiations that followed between Greece and its eurozone partners were tortuous and torture-like. Draft proposals agreed to by Varoufakis with Pierre Moscovici, eurozone commissioner for economic and financial affairs, and Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem were switched at the last moment, at German insistence, for much harsher terms. When Syriza cried uncle and submitted a letter requesting an extension of the loan agreement—reneging on a central election promise—the German finance ministry immediately dismissed it out of hand; German officials called it a “Trojan horse.” Relations between Greece and Germany have reached a low unseen since World War II. But other conservative governments that have implemented austerity programs—Portugal, Ireland and especially Spain, where Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party is facing a challenge from the anti-austerity Podemos—were also tough on the Greeks. They have no interest in suggesting to their voters that they could get a better deal out of the eurozone—if they elect a left-wing government.
On Friday, February 20, the European Central Bank made it clear that without an agreement in place, capital controls would have to be imposed on the Greek banks (which have been hemorrhaging funds since December) by the following Tuesday. Looking down the barrel of an ATM machine, Varoufakis signed a four-month agreement rich in constructive ambiguity, which has left commentators arguing over its meaning like Roman augurs. Greece still has a loan “arrangement” under the supervision of the troika (the European Commission, the ECB and the International Monetary Fund), which will be known henceforth as “the Institutions.” It has won a crucial reprieve from the requirement to run 4.5 percent primary surpluses, which gives it some fiscal breathing room, and the important right to design its own reforms, which must, however, be approved by “the Institutions.” The six-page draft of those reforms has met with a ja, but the devil may be in the details. Privatizations, the minimum wage, collective-bargaining rights—all the political reforms disguised in the old memoranda as economic measures—will be particular sticking points.
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“When you go to give birth,” Syriza MP Vassiliki Katrivanou said to me on the eve of the election, “you feel joy and you feel anxiety, but you know there’s no going back.” We are still in that narrow passage between the old world and the new—which may turn out to be more like the old than we would wish. As voices on Syriza’s left begin to express their discontent at the concessions made, as the wrangling about the terms of Greece’s bailout looks set to continue into April and beyond, we have to read the past for clues to possible futures.
In the first weeks after the election, Syriza’s popularity soared. While 36.3 percent had voted for the party, some 70 percent said they approved of Alexis Tsipras, the new prime minister. Thousands took to the streets in support of their new government. There was a palpable sense of relief. People spoke of being able to breathe again; of a return to the spirit of May 2011, when the aganaktismenoi protesting in the squares had not yet been choked with tear gas or divided into right- and left-wing camps. The joy had as much to do with an end as a beginning. The loathed politicians responsible for bringing Greece to this pass had been ostracized, the old corrupt centrist parties sloughed off like dead skin—and with them, our own shame.
From the outside, Syriza’s election victory looked like a simple response to catastrophic austerity, to the loss of sovereignty and democracy, to the debt trap built and maintained by the banks and financial markets—David against Goliath, a brave blow struck for all Europe’s people by the most powerless. And it was all those things. That’s what made it a lightning rod for left optimism everywhere, an inspiration for the foreigners who came to Athens on January 25 to join the celebrations, and who gathered in European cities on February 15 in solidarity with Greek negotiators in Brussels. But in Greece, this moment means both more and less than that. It has grown out of a specific history, which will also help to determine its resilience.
It’s been almost five years since then–prime minister George Papandreou announced, in the spring sunshine of the picturesque port of Kastellorizo, that Greece was effectively bankrupt, that his government had inherited “a ship about to sink” and had agreed with the European Union and the IMF on a “support mechanism” that would offer “a safe haven” in which to rebuild the leaky vessel. This was, he said, “a new Odyssey for Hellenism, but now we know the way to Ithaca, and we have charted our route…and we shall reach our destination safely.”
Countless lives have been wrecked on that voyage to nowhere. Papandreou’s safe harbor turned out to be a trap, a cover for the neoliberal restructuring—or rather destruction—of the Greek economy. For five years, Greeks have been subjected to deeper and deeper austerity in exchange for more and more loans, 89 percent of which go to pay the interest on the existing debt. A small primary surplus has been won at the cost of the collapse of the productive economy, 26 percent unemployment, social disintegration, Athenians burning their furniture to keep warm. Successive governments have stalled, delayed, capitulated, unable or unwilling to challenge the lethal game. The “dignity” so many Greeks now speak of—alongside the anxiety, the doubts, the fears about what may happen next—comes from the sense that they’ve stood up at last; that someone is speaking truth to power on their behalf.
But Greece’s troubles began well before the bailout agreement. The riots that followed the shooting of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos by an auxiliary policeman in December 2008 marked the moment when the dam broke, when the “700 euros generation” (a monthly salary that sounds princely now, but which back then felt like a pittance) rebelled against mismanagement, corruption and alienation—and when the ratings agencies downgraded the Greek economy. Now that the first phase of the negotiations is over, Syriza has to begin the enormous task of repair and deep reform, made infinitely harder by five years of collapse—but, paradoxically, also more possible. There is no other party in Greece that can take it on.
Many currents came together to lift Syriza’s boat into the space vacated by the rotten political system: its own shrewd reading of and response to the shifting situation; the framing of a reform agenda for the left, which includes tackling corruption; the grassroots solidarity projects born out of the depression; winds from Latin America; Greek history, memory, myth. A few days before the election, I sat with Dikaios Psikkakos in the cheerful, tatty offices of Solidarity for All, the organization Syriza set up and funds through a cut of its MPs’ salaries to offer practical support to local community projects. Dikaios is thoughtful, warm and open, and has been a Syriza activist for years. “I can’t explain what’s happening now,” he said. “There’s a huge groundswell for Syriza, even among right-wing people in my neighborhood, but I can’t see, yet, the new social alliance that supports it.” Dikaios drew a U-shape on a scrap of paper. Syriza used to be the party, he said, of the precariat—the losers of neoliberalism, the jobless, the low-waged and intermittently employed—and of urban, educated public-sector workers and intellectuals. It couldn’t gain a foothold in the vast landscape between, of smallholders, homeowners and secure private- and public-sector workers.
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Greece is not, traditionally, a particularly left-wing country, although it has a rich and heroic left-wing history. It has almost no large industry; apart from the two big earners, shipping and tourism, the economy runs on family enterprises, either farming or shops and services. The last time the radical left (almost) came to power was at another moment of deep national crisis: the end of the Axis occupation of 1941 to 1944, when the Communist Party–led resistance movement, EAM, controlled most of the country. The five-year civil war that followed, in which British and American intervention ensured victory for the anti-Communist side, shut the left out of power and civic life for more than thirty years, until after the fall of the junta in 1974. Thousands were imprisoned, exiled or executed. In 1981, Andreas Papandreou’s democratic socialist PaSoK rehabilitated (and defanged) EAM as a national resistance movement. Later, cheap loans from Europe helped to paper over the civil war’s deep wounds.
For years, the Greek Marxist left struggled to find a voice, splitting and resplitting, forming temporary alliances. Accustomed to life on the margins and seduced by dreams of ideological purity, small parties clung to their separate identities; several still do. A few hundred yards from Syriza’s grand rainbow pavilion in Athens before the election, a tiny red shack proclaimed the cooperation of two splinter groups, the Communist Party of Greece (Marxist-Leninist) and the (Marxist-Leninist) Communist Party of Greece. On election day, I wandered up a narrow wooden staircase in Aghios Panteleimon, former heartland of Golden Dawn, to find two women huddled over an electric heater in a bare, high-ceilinged room hung with posters of Marx and Lenin. This was the local office of the KKE, surviving rump of the old pro-Soviet Communist Party, which is strong in many trade unions and on that day won 5.5 percent of the vote, losing supporters to Syriza. Why, I asked, would the KKE never cooperate with Syriza? “Because we’re Marxists and they’re capitalists. They want Europe and the markets. If they were Marxists, they wouldn’t just want power. They’d want revolution.”
In fact, Syriza’s core is definitely Marxist (“erratic Marxist” in the case of Varoufakis), steeped in left political and economic theory. Its taproot reaches back to the old KKE; some of its senior activists are veterans of the painful struggle against the military dictatorship of 1967–74. In rundown, trendy Kolonos under torrential rain (“an omen,” someone said) on election eve, activists and journalists from the party newspaper, Avgi, drank tsipouro and talked about the campaign and the future. For them, this election is the first step in building socialism. “Because the people aren’t ready,” one of them explained, the party invested Tsipras with the image of most suitable prime minister. His genius, she said, is that he’s polymorphous: he can switch easily between Marxist terminology and “Greek populist bullshit.”
Vanguardist tendencies notwithstanding, Syriza has not only managed to unify much of Greece’s fissiparous left but has also drawn social democrats and liberals—and the far-right Independent Greeks—into a kind of emergency popular-front cabinet. The variety of cultures, backgrounds, ages, styles and political histories in its penumbra is striking; of the new government’s forty ministers and deputy ministers, only about half are party members. Deputy Culture Minister Nikos Xydakis is a former editor of the conservative Kathimerini daily; his pre-election party, in an old magazine printing plant, could have been in New York City’s East Village. A subtle writer uncomfortable with public speaking, he began by wrapping his conviction in irony: “The form that suits me is the melodrama, so I intended to speak about the night that surrounds us, and the light of hope.” For Xydakis, as for so many others radicalized by the crisis, the Syriza government represents Greece’s last, best chance to escape asphyxiation. “In the heart of Europe, the world’s richest continent, they’ve applied Third World programs from the 1970s,” he told me. “It’s lending as colonization. How did our politicians sign up to such things?”
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Syriza’s articulation of a left nationalist narrative for a people who feel humiliated not only by austerity but by their scapegoating as the cause of Europe’s crisis has also helped fill the gap in the middle of Dikaios’s “U.” Immediately after his civil swearing in, Tsipras went to the shooting range at Kaisariani, where 200 resistance fighters, most of them communists, were executed by the Nazis in 1944. Alone, he laid red roses on the memorial there and stood for a moment in silence. It was a triple gesture of remembrance, vindication and defiance, asserting Syriza’s continuity with the wartime left, staring down Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn and claiming for his government the mantle of a national liberation movement.
Much of the swing to Syriza, though, was based on harsh reality. In the five years of the bailout, the precariat has grown hugely. Middle-class families have seen their income shrink by up to 25 percent, or destroyed entirely. In the past year, a new property tax has hit the bricks and mortar that for most Greeks meant security. The overwhelming feeling is “we can’t go on like this.” Nobody I spoke to on election day expected miracles; the standard line was: “If they do two of the ten things they’ve promised, I’ll be happy.” Even convinced Syriza supporters understood the emotional rhetoric of the election rallies as just that, not to be confused with the hard compromises needed to pull the country out of its long, disastrous slump. In the yard of a public school in lower-middle-class Gyzi, where many small shops have closed, Hermione, a retired magistrate, told me she’d voted for change, “although I don’t have hopes that very much will change. I want to see more justice. To have no work is an injustice. Something has to happen. Otherwise we’re lost.” In the leafy, well-heeled suburb of Psychiko, most voters I spoke to predictably felt that “responsibility” meant sticking with the bailout program, finishing what had been started, not risking Greece’s place in the eurozone. But most of the 64 percent who didn’t vote for Syriza have also been hit hard by the crisis. For them, “hope” just wouldn’t catch; or Tsipras reminded them too much of Andreas Papandreou, who also promised “change” in 1981 and who, as an elderly lady waiting in a public clinic put it, “devastated the country”; or they thought the prospect of a better deal from the eurozone was pure fantasy.
In Ayios Panteleimon, a formerly prosperous central Athens neighborhood where many recent immigrants are now packed into flats by slumlords, I met a man whose melancholy seemed to catch the cautious mood of the many undecided voters. Thanassis, 57, was waiting outside the polling place—an old neoclassical elementary school with an incongruous mural of Snow White and the Star of Vergina (symbol of Macedonia and an emblem of Greek nationalism) on the classroom wall. He felt weighed down, he told me, by the responsibility; he was voting for his son’s future, but could see no clear path ahead. “The only things I can leave him,” he said, “are a good name and a small flat that was his grandmother’s…. I don’t know what’ll happen here. We can’t go back to putting everyone in the public sector and retiring at 52.” He used to vote for conservative New Democracy; his son had joined the party, which got him a job in the north, but he’d been disgusted by the corruption and left. Now, he said, his son was going to vote for a small party. “I told him I don’t care which one, as long as it’s not Golden Dawn. I’d rather cut my arm off than vote Golden Dawn.”
Over the next four months and beyond, as the mood of euphoria at having “stood up” fades, Syriza will need to bring hope to the Thanassises of Greece by proving that it can offer them ordinary, difficult things: a living wage; a state that works for its citizens and lets you open a shop without standing in fifteen lines; judges who don’t rule according to their political views; a public sector where promotion depends on the work you’ve done and not on whom you know. It will have to help the 300,000 poorest families, as it has promised, and begin to turn the productive economy around, and restore workers’ rights so employers can’t just tell them, when they come for their unpaid wages, “if you don’t like it there are hundreds out there waiting for your job.” It will have to collect fair taxes and wrest political power back from Greece’s oligarchs, resisting their blandishments. And it will have to take “the people” with it at every step. As Vassiliki Katrivanou kept saying to potential voters before the election, “We’re not just here to ask for your vote. We’re here to ask you for your help and participation afterward.”
None of this will be easy. The negotiations with the eurozone will rumble on for months, with more crisis points ahead in April and June. Some in the left wing of Syriza are already furious at the concessions made, claiming that Tsipras has betrayed his promises. That argument will be bitter, but it must be had; Syriza needs both its liberals and its radicals on board. Syriza has a double mandate—to end austerity and restore lost rights while staying in the eurozone. These things may well turn out to be incompatible, but polls show that around three-quarters of Greeks still want them both. Leaving the eurozone is a terrifying prospect; it wasn’t only the wealthy who expressed their fear by pulling their last euros from the banks. If it proves impossible for Syriza to implement its program under the current “arrangement,” Greece may indeed be pushed into leaving the eurozone, but only after proper debate and preparation.
In the meantime, though, Syriza has won vital concessions: time, an end to the absurd demand for huge primary surpluses, and the right to design its own reform program. This is a greater victory than it may seem at first—and it wouldn’t have been possible without the Greek negotiators’ willingness to take a truly radical position, risking everything. In doing so, they have also changed the future of the eurozone. Cracks have begun to appear in the Berlin Wall. Germany’s hardline finance ministry has been forced to concede that politics can’t be separated from economics. A small country has insisted on its democracy against opposition from Brussels, sharpening the contradiction at the heart of the eurozone. Elections are coming up in Spain, Ireland and Portugal, all hard hit by austerity. Syriza’s posters before the election announced that “Hope Is Coming” in brightly colored letters. Now it’s time for ordinary hope, in black and white.