EDITOR’S NOTE: This article includes the four installments of #ThisIsACoup, a documentary in four installments, directed by Theopi Skarlatos and produced and narrated by Paul Mason. #ThisIsACoup is a partnership with The Intercept's Field of Vision.
Yanis Varoufakis is pacing the marble hall, cellphone to his ear. In the Maximos Mansion, where the cabinet is about to meet, there’s a “spy room” for secure communications. But by June 21, Varoufakis—hunched against a statue—no longer needs it.
If the Germans are listening, they need to hear what he is planning to do. With nine days to go until the Greek bailout program ends, Varoufakis is about to offer a significant compromise to the lenders. Pensions will be cut, and taxes hiked—hitting the fiscal targets demanded by Europe. That’s Plan A. If it doesn’t work, there is a Plan B, which he explains almost in a whisper:
“My very strong suspicion is that the powers that be, at least within the Eurogroup, have made up their minds to give us an offer we can’t possibly sign up to, and that as a result, there’s going to be bank closures on Tuesday.”
Are you ready for that? I ask him. “Of course not,” he says. “Nobody is ready for Armageddon.”
“The big question is this: Once the banks close their doors, are we prepared to do what it takes—and respond to this aggressive act by the [European Central Bank] and the Bank of Greece aggressively—by haircutting the €27 billion of SMP bonds we owe to the ECB?”
Varoufakis knows defaulting on the ECB would be like dropping a financial atom bomb. We store the only copy of the interview in a safe and wait for Armageddon. But it doesn’t come.
If Syriza had gone to Brussels and provoked the showdown, scrapped €27 billion worth of debt to the ECB and mobilized the vast network of support it enjoyed in Europe, it might have stood a chance. Instead, Greek negotiators spent the next week pursuing the same strategy of compromise that had got them nowhere for months.
On Friday, June 26, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked away from the negotiations and called a referendum; but it was never backed by the kind of action Varoufakis proposed.
By July 13, Greek resistance to austerity was over: With the economy close to collapse, Tsipras was forced to sign a new bailout deal, handing economic sovereignty to Brussels. The first left-wing government in modern Europe had been effectively destroyed. The delight of the European elite was summed up by Slovak Finance Minister Peter Kazimir: “tough for Athens” he tweeted, “because of their ‘Greek Spring.’”
Syriza’s clash with the eurozone holds lessons not just for the left but also for any politician who wants to enact a break from neoliberal economics. With filmmaker Theopi Skarlatos, I spent six months watching the dream fall apart. We filmed on condition that the interviews would be broadcast only after the crisis was over.
* * *
January, 25, 2015: As he returns to Syriza’s HQ on election night, Alexis Tsipras knows he’s going to be prime minister. He will need a coalition with a small party of right-wing nationalists, the Independent Greeks, to form a working majority. But he will be free of the trap prepared for him by the political center—an enforced grand coalition with remnants of the pro-austerity parties
On the top floor of the small office building, his staff—some veterans of 30 years on the political fringe—are in tears. “Guys, we won! Why are you crying?” Tsipras jokes as he hugs them. “When we lost last time, you celebrated. Now we win and you cry!”
Outside, in the party’s campaign tent, Anastasia Giamali, a young journalist on Avgi (Dawn) the party-affiliated newspaper, is also crying. She leans through the din of anthems from 70 years ago and quotes a line from the poet Odysseas Elytis: “It’s time for dreams to take revenge.”
The days that follow Syriza’s victory trigger a mass psychological release. People keep talking, without any obvious prompts, about fathers and grandfathers who were tortured during the civil war. Tsipras himself heads straight from his inauguration to the war memorial at Kaisariani, erected to mark the spot where the Germans executed 200 resistance fighters.
Three days before the election, Varoufakis tells me, “We are going to destroy the oligarchic system.” His first act as finance minister is to destroy something else: the so-called “troika” of lenders—the International Monetary Fund, the ECB, and the European Union. Live on Greek TV, he calls it a “body built on a rotten structure” and ends cooperation with them. He expels foreign officials from Greek ministries and sets off on a tour of Europe to drum up support for his primary objective: a controlled write-off of around a third of Greece’s debt.
When we meet in London he is without bodyguard, press officer, or official car, confident that “within a very short space of time, there is going to be a deal that proves Greece can operate within the rules, and ends the Greek crisis once and for all.”
But within hours, that proves to be a total miscalculation. On February 4, the European Central Bank pulls its regular credit facility to the Greek banks, obliging them to go on a form of life support known as Emergency Lending Assistance. From then on, the survival of the banks depends on Greece’s remaining exactly where Syriza does not want it to be: in a bailout program.
In the two months prior to the election, fearing a Syriza victory would lead to ejection from the eurozone, Greeks pulled €16 billion of deposits from the banks—a tenth of all their savings. Now the ECB’s move prompts them to withdraw a further €8 billion in just 20 days.
On February 20, Varoufakis arrives in Brussels with no other option but to sign an extension of the old bailout. Syriza has to submit a proposed “list of measures”—new laws it wants to pass to alleviate the economic pain. In return it gets four more months to do a lasting deal. This sets the scene for the four months of hesitation that will grind Syriza’s election program to dust.
* * *
The Embros Theater in Athens was closed under the old government and left to rot. In 2011 it was occupied by starving actors and turned into a “self-organized squat.” In the dressing room, amid graffiti drawn with lipstick on the mirrors, Dina Kafterani is getting ready to perform. She’s the leader of the Stray Bitches, an all-woman theater troupe who are activists first, actors second.
“I don’t believe the government can save us,” she insists, jostling for elbow space as she applies her makeup. “You have to compromise even to be in these negotiations with people like Dijsselbloem, Merkel, Schauble”—she spits the names out. “These are people you wouldn’t even give the time of day to if they weren’t world leaders.”
The Stray Bitches theme song is a resistance ballad from the Second World War. They’re all, like Dina, veterans of the struggle against austerity, which turned street fighting into an art form and made tear gas normal.
In March we follow the women as they leaflet late-night Athens bars in preparation for an anti-fascist demo. They sing, they give the same short speech in each bar, they are applauded. The people cheering are from a generation whose future has been stolen. Forget the “average wage”—among the young graduates I spoke with in Greece, the usual wage, holding down two or three casual jobs, is €400 a month.
For these young people the question is not whether they will support Syriza—but how soon they’ll have to fight it. Everyone in the this milieu expects Tsipras to betray them. Less than a month after Varoufakis’s U-turn, Dina says, “They’re playing a game.” Syriza, to her, looks like a bunch of technocrats. They did symbolic things in the first few days, but now “it seems like they are the same.”
For Dina the answer is “networks of the people”—the networks that turned Athens into an urban war zone in December 2008 after police shot dead a 15-year-old student. And which mobilized mass disobedience and the occupation of the squares in May–June 2011.
At OLP Piraeus, a state-owned container port that Europe wants sold off to pay Greece’s debts, we meet the other face of the Greek Spring—the organized working class. Ilias Katsafados, a foreman there, heaves into view as we’re quizzing the dock workers about what they think of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“What can you say about Hitler’s successor?” he asks. The canteen falls silent. Greece was occupied in living memory by Germany, causing hundreds of thousands of starvation deaths, in addition to the tens of thousands killed through genocide and military combat. In working-class communities, few people are shy of drawing the parallels with the current crisis.
“What do you want for your kids?” Ilias asks his workmates. “Freedom,” says one. “We should be ashamed of ourselves,” he replies. “Germans earn €3,000 a month for working five hours a day. We work 24 hours a day without insurance. It’s outrageous.”
Later, at the boxing club where he’s a volunteer coach, Ilias explains the sources of his outrage. He’s from Mani, the part of Greece famous for leaning to the right. “We have a different political tradition there,” he says. But he voted for Syriza in January and he’s hopeful the party will defend Greek economic sovereignty in the face of German pressure. Surrounded by tough kids from a tough neighborhood, Ilias lays heavy punches into a stack of car tires swinging from a chain. “Take that, Merkel!” he yells.
The more we become immersed in these battlegrounds of resistance—the waterfront, the village kafeneions (coffeehouses), the squats—the clearer it becomes how precariously Syriza is balanced above them. The Maximos Mansion, Tsipras’s HQ, is a cold marble hall flanked by offices. It takes a few visits to realize that almost everybody who matters is a party activist or sympathizer, not a career civil servant, from the secretaries to Tsipras’s personal bodyguard.
The aim—though never clearly stated—is to keep the civil service out of the loop. The upside is that it makes it harder for German intelligence and the domestic political opposition to spy on Syriza. The downside is, the party only tenuously controls the state.
The first showdown with the lenders comes over the so-called “humanitarian law” Tsipras passes in March, giving free food to 300,000 of the poorest people, and offering fuel assistance. The European Commission tells Greece this breaks the rules of the interim agreement, and the lenders withhold the last €2 billion they owe Greece under the old bailout.
Then, on April 24 at the Riga Summit, there’s a second clash. Somebody inside the Eurogroup briefs journalists that Varoufakis is “a time-waster, a gambler, and an amateur.” Those in the room describe a “complete breakdown of communication.” The next day Tsipras, in the Maximos, is beginning to contemplate the hard choice coming.
“I think that probably we are the only country that will pay our creditors with our own blood,” says Tsipras. “It’s true that we’ve exhausted the last of our liquidity and we are in a very difficult situation.” How long do they have left? “It depends—we’ll be in the middle of May in a very difficult position and we’ll have to decide what we are going to do. And in my opinion it will be very easy to decide to pay pensions and wages and not to repay the IMF bonds.”
Though the banks have stabilized, by late April it’s the state that’s running out of cash. It’s begun to raid the reserves of local authorities and pension funds. Defaulting on the IMF would make the Greece the first developed country to do so in modern times.
On May 1, during the traditional workers’ demo, Varoufakis is mobbed by well-wishers. “My golden boy,” one man sobs as he hugs him. But behind the scenes he is being edged out. In the hope of gaining a compromise, Tsipras appoints Economy Minister Euclid Tsakalotos as lead negotiator. In late April, Varoufakis tells us later, “I witnessed a major turnaround in attitude and spirit—I found out that without my being consulted we had given up on austerity—we’d accepted a very large dose of austerity, at which point I was utterly livid.”
The rationale, Varoufakis says, is that Syriza would compromise on austerity but insist on debt relief. “I felt even then that was just a mistake on Tsipras’s part—that the troika would not yield; and we would all unite again and come out fighting, but that didn’t happen.”
Armed with the new strategy—of compromise on specific austerity measures, but intransigence on debt relief, Tsakalotos is sent again to Brussels on June 1, to try to do a deal. There’s a flurry of optimism among the Syriza activists, some of whom we find clustered in a late-night cafe to follow the negotiations via a group-message app. Around 2 am everybody starts repeating an obscure Greek phrase: “We were handed our own balls,” somebody translates.
By now Syriza is internally divided. There is the Left Platform, an organized group of communist and Trotskyist MPs which has always advocated default and exit from the euro. There is the “Group of 53,” a more organic center-left faction containing many people close to Tsipras himself. It includes both Tsakalotos and parliamentary speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou. Their aim is to persuade Tsipras to make a demonstrative “rupture” with the lenders, designed to force them to offer a better deal within the eurozone. Then there is a group of moderates around deputy prime minister Yannis Dragasakis, including most of the independents and former social democrats Tsipras appointed as ministers.
Konstantopoulou joined Syriza only in November 2012. A tough human-rights lawyer, with her own political networks and firebrand reputation, she’s tried to transform the office of parliamentary speaker. She opened up around 100 corruption cases that parliamentary immunity had stalled. And she set up a Debt Truth Commission, composed of international experts, to build a legal case for the cancellation of Greece’s debt.
As the frustration mounts, she begins pushing for more aggressive action behind the scenes. “You know what people say,” we prod her. “If Syriza comes under pressure, Zoe will fight.” She winces. “It’s not a question of Zoe.… Syriza is full of people who have passed their exams.”
At this stage even Konstantopoulou is saying, in public, that a sensible deal will be done. And since this is the party line, it’s what people on the streets believe. At Giamali’s house party, at Easter, her dad stages a spoof fortune-telling session over a lamb’s carcass: “Tsipras will rule for 30 years, and we’ll drive Merkel crazy,” he says. “What about socialism?” Giamali teases him. “Socialism is coming,” he says.
In fact, what’s coming is the thing that none of them have prepared for: a clash with the lenders so severe that it strains the willpower even of those who wanted it.
* * *
On June 4, the rupture begins. Syriza decides to stop paying the IMF. Though Greece won’t be technically in default until the end of June, it’s what the left of the party wanted: a fight.
The break with the lenders has two effects: the silent bank run, which had slowed down after the February deal, picks up pace. And the Greek streets, which have seen only sporadic riots over single issues, now come alive with big protests.
On the one side, there are the forces that have backed Syriza: the unions, the pensioners, the far left, and the youth. On June 17, Konstantopoulou is feted outside parliament by a large crowd. Her committee has just presented proof that the entire €317 billion Greece was lent between 2010 and 2012 could be classed as “odious” and therefore illegal. “Does nothing scare you?” a guy shouts and pats her on the shoulder as she struggles through the crowd. “Nobody is scared,” she says.
But the next day, an opposing force appears. The enraged middle classes take to the streets bearing placards, in bad English, denouncing Syriza as a Soviet party and demanding its overthrow. Their main demand is for Greece to accept the austerity measures demanded by Europe and to stay with the euro. The crowd is well-heeled but big.
The newness and viscerality of middle-class outrage rattles some of Syriza’s activists. Occasionally they voice the unspoken worry: I may have to live through what my parents did—a death match between the left and right.
Up to now the menace to the left, according to its own mythology, had come from the “deep state” first and the fascists second. The pro-Euro mass movement was something new—dotcom types and fashionistas on the streets, their anti-communist rhetoric mixed with (as it turned out justified) concern over the threat of euro exit.
In the days after June 18, Syriza’s members begin to realize how bad it’s going to get. “Could you put party activists outside pharmacies and give out medicine if there’s unrest?” I ask one of the Syriza rank-and-filers who’s been agitating hardest for a fight. “No,” he says. “We’d have to rely on the police.”
The admission goes to the heart of the problem with Syriza. Its spiritual father, Marxist intellectual Nicos Poulantzas, taught that the European left needs two things: independent, mass social movements, and a modernized, electoral-focused party. The formula worked for Syriza in opposition. But the party did very little in the months between March and June to mobilize an active movement.
In the Port of Piraeus, Katsafados and his workmates are frustrated with the delays. “I wish Tsipras would leave Brussels, I really do,” he says, as the gantries and containers swing above our heads. “I’ve got two kids. I would rather break a rock in two and eat it than allow these slave drivers to give us orders.” And, pausing to crack a smile he says, “If only I could get my hands on one of those guys in Brussels,”—he means the lenders. “Just one.”
This is the pressure—from above and below—that propels Tsipras into the referendum. It’s June 26, Friday night, and Giamali is out with friends at a bar when she becomes locked onto her cellphone. She looks up, her eyes popping. “There’s going to be a referendum, in a week’s time, and the question is—yes or no to the proposal of the creditors.” She’s dumbstruck. “I’m thinking,” she says eventually, with a sigh, “that if we fall now, at least we fall with our heads held high.”
Within minutes, queues begin to form at ATMs. Though it’s a Friday, and the banks are closed, it’s clear that, without capital controls, the scale of the bank run will sink all four of the systemic financial institutions in Greece by Monday morning. The European Central Bank orders Greece to close the banks and limit ATM withdrawals—which are capped at €60 a day.
Everything the right predicted when Syriza came into power, and which its moderate wing strove for months to avoid, is now happening: a clash with the lenders at a point where ministers believed that less than €3 billion remain available to depositors, where the state is struggling to pay wages, and where the banks can reopen only if a deal is done that satisfies the ECB.
It is the start of 14 days in which every hour seems like a month; days of hyper-reality, tension, and stress that neither alcohol nor exhaustion will touch.
* * *
The global media flock to Athens to see the panic on Monday morning, but there is very little. First, because for months Greeks have squirreled away what cash they could. Second, because, for people who earn €500 a month, having your withdrawals limited to €60 euros a day is not a disaster.
It is the supply chains of businesses that are under the most acute stress, and early on. Some airlines stop selling tickets in Greece; companies used to paying workers in cash stop paying.
On June 30, with less than 24 hours to go before the old bailout expires, Tsakalotos is in his office, phoning contacts among the lenders. He sips nervously at an iced coffee. Can he really summon a deal this late? “I don’t know,” he says. “Because I don’t know what they want.”
By this time the polls are indicating a Yes victory. Most private TV channels and newspapers are pumping out pro-Yes propaganda and the pro-Yes demos are getting bigger, less obviously bourgeois, and angrier. “Hey ho, keep your helicopter fueled,” they chant.
But Tsakalotos is calm. He tells us that, once people realize €60-a-day limits to the ATMs are not a catastrophe, the polls will swing. He understands what some in the Greek elite are beginning to understand: Capital controls redistribute pain upward.
On midnight 30 June the old bailout expires. It means the emergency life support that the European Central Bank grudgingly expanded to keep the banks afloat could technically be withdrawn. Greece is negotiating on a knife edge.
But on the eve of the referendum, the IMF drops a bombshell. Its economists admit that the Greek debt is unpayable. The country needs a 30-year payment holiday and massive write-offs before any more austerity can logically be tried.
Maybe it is the IMF leak. Maybe it is the experience of economic freefall. But by Thursday you can sense that Syriza, almost without doing anything, is back on the offensive.
On Friday, July 3, the No campaign stages a rally in front of parliament in Syntagma Square. Dina Kafterani, on the way to it, tells us, “Here’s what the choice is: Do you want to let this fucking neoliberalism destroy your life? Vote yes. If not, vote no—because there is a chance with Oxi” (the Greek word for No).
For many in the anarchist and autonomist movement, voting in the July 5 referendum is the only time in their lives they have ever marked a ballot paper.
At twilight, in the Maximos, Tsipras is pacing nervously. He’s been invited to address the rally, and can only get there by walking through the crowd. “Blow the whistle,” he says, forcing a smile.
The half-mile distance is walked to cheers from tens of thousands of people. He climbs the podium looking dazed. He delivers a speech that, on paper, could be read as a preparation for defeat. “Whatever happens, it does not matter, because democracy has won.” Delivered to a vast crowd that will not stop chanting “Oxi, Oxi,” its meaning becomes defiance.
The next day, in defiance of Greek electoral law, some TV channels continue broadcasting pro-Yes propaganda, simply taking their logos off the screen to avoid the threat of prosecution. On July 5, referendum day, we find Piraeus longshoreman Ilias Katsafados voting with his daughter. The Oxi sticker on his vest proclaims his allegiance. He says, “I feel more complete as a citizen now. I did what I had to do for my children’s future and my grandchildren’s. I would like God to help others do the same.”
As the polls close, the cabinet room of the Maximos is filled with Syriza officials. Over gin and tonic and rolled-up cigarettes, the theme of the conversation is “we should have done more.” Some still expect to lose the referendum and be out of there within days, handing power gracefully back to the Greek elite. Then the TV news reports that 61 percent have voted No. The cabinet room goes crazy. Grown men grin like school kids. Varoufakis kisses the man next to him.
“I’m pinching myself, it’s astonishing.” Varoufakis says. “So you didn’t need to press the nuclear button?” we ask him. “No, the Greek people have allowed us to return to the table with immense bargaining power and a sense of pride in them.”
Tsipras delivers a televised address, saying he will not seek confrontation with Europe but further compromise. On Syntagma Square, the crowd hug each other and dance in circles. At 1:30, just as the Maximos is closing down for the night, Tsipras walks in through the front door. Does he understand how big this is?
“I’m trying,” he says. “Between you and me, in the middle of this struggle I was not so sure that in the end we would manage to convince the people to overcome their fear. But the message is, if people believe they have the right they can overcome their fear.”
“Four hours later,” says Varoufakis, “I was the ex–finance minister.”
Varoufakis’s resignation is presented at the time as a sign of good faith with the creditors. Speaking in September, he tells a different story: “When I walked into the Maximos, and saw you there, I felt it—you didn’t—the atmosphere was negative. It was clear that the resonance of this majestic No on the streets had not carried through to the Maximos—Maximos was charged towards surrender.”
For Tsipras the plan was: Greece would go into the new negotiations with enemies chastened and allies strengthened. The French would help design the compromise. Syriza would sign up to more austerity and the Eurogroup to a third bailout. It would be tough, but it would solve the problem long-term and bring an end to the drip-feed of life-support.
But the plan went wrong. Europe responded to the referendum with silence, not the offer of talks. And then the ECB did the talking. It further tightened lending conditions on the Greek banks in a way designed to collapse them by July 13, the Monday after a weekend of crunch negotiations.
These were raw, traumatic days. Many activists developed a “thousand-yard stare.” It felt like sitting under an economic blitzkrieg, with an objective very clear to Giamali: “I’m impressed and angry at the same time that they think they can bring a democratically elected leader down, like this!”—she snaps her fingers. “It’s unbelievable.”
By Sunday, July 12, Tsipras is in an impossible position. The Greek economy is freezing over fast. Shops are closing. As Tsipras enters the talks in Brussels, Germany drops its final bombshell. It demands that Greece “temporarily” exit the eurozone—in order to write off debts that cannot be canceled inside the single currency. Both sides understand that, in this case, “temporary” means forever. Germany, which has continually insisted it would be unlawful for any state to leave the euro, now insists that “Grexit” is inevitable.
The alternative is to hand control of the Greek economy to Europe—together with a €50 billion privatization scheme and a new austerity program designed to slice away the pensions and VAT reliefs that Syriza had defended up to now.
With Tsipras trapped in the talks for 17 hours, activists in Barcelona tweet #ThisIsACoup. The meme spreads to Paris, then Athens, then Rio, and then goes viral. We are witnessing the clear, clinical override of the democratic will of a nation, expressed not once but twice in six months. By the end of the night, about a quarter-million tweets had been posted with the hashtag.
Tsipras emerges into the Brussels dawn on July 13 to announce the deal. He promised there would be no third bailout. He has just signed a third bailout. He promised an end to austerity. There will be three more years of it. He banked on getting debt relief. He got nothing.
That night, as protesters gather outside the Greek parliament, Dina Kafterani looks stunned. “They fucked us,” is her stark assessment. She gestures to the Parliament. “They only have the power to fuck us. We have the power to unfuck ourselves.”
Within days, Varoufakis and Konstantopoulou join the growing rebellion within Syriza. Varoufakis says, “I felt as if the earth had imploded under my feet. I felt incredible sadness and a sense of having betrayed the 62 percent of Greeks who had shown astonishing courage—and I don’t think we had the historical right to do that.”
The Left Platform quit Syriza, forming a new party—Popular Unity—which Konstantopoulou supports. This triggers a new election. Syriza is reinstalled, once again, at the head of the Greek government, scoring 35 percent—almost exactly what it got in January. It forms, yet again, a coalition with the Independent Greeks. But its task now is not to fight austerity: It has to implement austerity.
* * *
We meet Tsipras and Tsakalotos in November, on the day they’ve won a vote in parliament that will put them on a path to cutting pensions and raise taxes on the poor. The consolation to their supporters is a promise to attack corruption and oligarchic power.
We put to Tsakalotos: Syriza made hardly any successful moves against corruption and organized crime in the first six months. Now there’s a danger that, as it implements austerity, it will be reinfested by the oligarchy. He admits frankly:
“I think there is a real danger of that—any left-wing government faces that. Because the default in any capitalist system is vested interest, is corruption. Corruption is not a leftover from traditional societies. Britain and American in the neoliberal era are rife with corruption, so that is the default.
“My the only excuse is that in the first government, we were under so much pressure, going from crisis to crisis that we didn’t do enough. But even with that I am not going to excuse myself: We didn’t do enough. If you ask me what was the number-one fault of the first Syriza government, it was that we did not do enough on anti-corruption and tax evasion, to show the world we were serious.”
Tsakalotos, like many intellectuals of his generation, is puzzled by the misfire of the relationship between the party and the movements.
“It’s too simplistic to say Syriza failed because they didn’t leave the euro or were not radical enough. It was that people transferred their aspirations to the political level and actually stopped doing all those things that brought Syriza to power—mobilizing, creating movements, pressurizing. If Syriza is going to succeed, we need to refind that balance. If there’s no action from below to pressurize ministers, then no left-wing government can succeed.”
Tsakalotos’s office overlooks Syntagma Square. Will he be happy then to see it filled with striking dockers, rioters, protesters?
“I’d be happy if there was that kind of protest, but even happier if people were organizing for alternative solutions.”
As for Tsipras, he’s moved from hero to zero in the minds of many on the global left. By now everybody’s had the chance to apply their pet theory: He was always going to sell out; or he was “captured by the state machine,” as in Leninist doctrine. The reality is more complex. Almost the first thing he says to us, when we sit down to trawl through the events, is, “I believe in the class-war theory.” This is not just about Greece versus Europe but a struggle between rich and poor in Greece, he says. He is disarmingly clear about the results of his premiership. “We have lost our sovereignty.”
That prompts the obvious question. Why, on July 13, didn’t he just walk away from Brussels?
“If I walked away on this night, probably I would have become a hero for one night, maybe two or three, but it would have been a true disaster for the next days and nights, not only for me but for the majority of the Greek people. So it was a very difficult dilemma: My heart and soul told me to leave, but my mind told me I had to find a solution, even though I knew this solution was very difficult and tough.”
He insists the alternative would have been “the collapse of the banks first and then the collapse of the economy.”
What should he have done differently? “I think that we lost time. At the end we were out of power and out of money. If we knew that in advance we could have made braver decisions at the beginning.”
Does he regret telling people, on the day he came to power, that it was the end of the troika, and the end of bailouts? “Yeah, this is a fact,” he says. “But it was not so easy [for things] to be over.”
He says he underestimated what Germany’s intention was, underestimated how much his opponents were trying to make an example of Greece, to stop a domino effect of debt restructuring across Europe, rather than calculating purely on the economic pros and cons of a Greek deal.
Tsipras is convinced that Germany still wants to throw Greece out of the euro. He’s encouraged by the swing to the left in Portugal, optimistic about Podemos in Spain and about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK. “When we started we were alone. Now we’re not alone.”
So what went wrong? First, miscalculation. Obama, Renzi, and Hollande assured the Greeks that they could bargain from a position where membership of the eurozone was inviolable. But Germany chipped away at all their allies using strong, quiet diplomacy. German diplomatic pressure wielded greater impact than American or French goodwill.
Second, everybody underestimated the amount of moral capital Germany was prepared to lose to smash Syriza. Tsipras says that if he knew then what he knows now, he would have staged the rupture with the lenders earlier: when the Greek state had money enough to ride out the closure of the banks for a few weeks.
But this is exactly what Varoufakis was urging at the time, together with Konstantopoulou and the entire Left Platform of Syriza, yet Tsipras rejected it. So the source of Syriza’s failure cannot be traced simply to one man, or an inner circle.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci insisted that capitalism’s defensive fortress is not just the state but line after line of “trenches”—religion, ideology, conservative social movements, the media, and organized crime—that must also be taken. The left tradition Syriza comes from took Gramsci’s writings and produced the strategy: democratic party plus independent mass movements, drawing strength from each other.
But Syriza, in the end, was a Gramscian party in a non-Gramscian world. It was conceived in the era of hierarchies, not networks, and in the era of national economies, not globalization.
The mass occupation movement of 2011, which Syriza supported but never led, was the product of a networked society. Syriza could ride the wave but never really harness the energy of the wave inside the cold, smoke-filled marble of the ministries.
Konstantopoulou says, “When it was formed, Syriza used to gloat that it could swim through the networks of the people like a fish through water. And that was true. But it was not true of the government. The prime minister at some point stopped having this connection. Tsipras perception of society stopped being based on experience, but started being based on hearsay and opinion polls.”
The hardest thing to hear, especially for people now mobilizing to resist the new austerity program, is that the networked mass movements were never organized well enough to place leverage on the government, nor were they ready for a clash with the mobilized forces of the middle class. They were anti-hierarchical; at their most active, they would occasionally occupy Syriza-aligned radio stations to demand that certain anarchist prisoners be freed. The networks of the people had become survival mechanisms, not levers to set the party into motion against the interests of capital.
On top of this, the state was no longer the strongest defensive fortress: The European Central Bank and the Bank of Greece—controlled by Frankfurt—were stronger. So despite Syriza’s taking control of the state, the euro finance system always had the upper hand: Syriza could not replace the governor of the central bank, nor could it properly restructure the boards of banks. In the Gramsican scheme, the mass movement forces the hand of the party and it transforms the state. Syriza chose to inhabit the ministries—almost at times to “squat” them, just as the anarchists squat buildings in Exarcheia. It proved very difficult actually to use them.
The question Syriza posed as it came to power was: Can the eurozone allow a left-wing government to fulfill its pledges, mitigate austerity, and govern in the interest of the people? Tsipras’s calculation was that it could. The verdict of events suggests otherwise.
So Tsipras is trapped. Greece faces an economic-supervision program from lenders who remain intransigent on the central issue: Debts that cannot, and never will be paid cannot be written off within the rules of the eurozone. What happens next is unpredictable.
A people held together by family networks, religious rituals, strong national identity, and layer upon layer of plebeian subculture has to be atomized before it can be defeated. And the Greek people are not yet atomized or defeated. The question is who will represent them.
If Tsipras can snatch a deal on debt in the coming months, he can argue that the struggle was worth it: that by resisting before collapsing Syriza gained something more than the center and the right could have gained. But the math remains stark: Greece’s debt will rise from €317 billion this year to €337 billion next year. Even with a debt deal, the medicine of austerity will go on killing the patient—and all sense of democratic control will go on being eroded.
Towards the end of our conversation, Tsipras says: “I know that the result and what happened afterwards was not good, but the fact that people had the chance to express their feelings and to feel dignity was something very, very important. These were historic times for Greece and for the Greek people—and these times happened.”