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Syriza's fall from grace in Greece: Can neoliberalism be defeated?

John Wight
John Wight has written for a variety of newspapers and websites, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal.
Syriza's fall from grace in Greece: Can neoliberalism be defeated?
Syriza’s ignominious fall from grace in Greece is a salutary lesson as to the folly of promising the impossible and delivering the detestable.

It all seems so long ago now that the left wing anti-austerity party swept to power pledging to end the country’s ‘fiscal waterboarding’ and humiliation at the hands of a neoliberal troika, made up of the European Central Bank, European Commission and the IMF.

Led by a comely and youthful Alexis Tsipras, with the motorcycle riding and leather jacket wearing Yanis Varoufakis alongside him as his economic brain, Syriza arrived on the scene in 2015 as a beacon of hope in the dark night of austerity Europe. It breathed life into the tired ideological limbs of a battered and beleaguered European left, injecting it with the hope that despite everything the prospect of slaying the beast of neoliberalism and financialised capitalism was not yet lost.

So where then did all go wrong and why?

I was not in the ranks of those who accused Tsipras and Syriza of betrayal when they capitulated to the troika’s demand for the implementation of its bailout program, amounting to austerity on steroids. This was in response to the country’s crippling debt crisis, ushered in on the back of the 2008 financial crash, which arrived courtesy of a deregulated banking system intoxicated with greed, short termism, and a rapacious drive to make tomorrow’s today no matter the consequences for tomorrow.

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As I wrote at the time, the howls of condemnation levelled at Tsipras and Syriza revealed an under appreciation of the depth of the crisis that had engulfed the country. It had grown from an economic and political crisis into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, measured in alarming shortages of medicines and food – shortages that were even starting to be felt by tourists at the time.

Furthermore, the imposition of capital controls by the troika had stopped payments by Greek businesses to overseas suppliers, which if allowed to continue would have meant the slow but steady asphyxiation of the economy and, with it, Greek society. The consequences of this beyond a certain point would have been ugly, culminating in societal collapse and fragmentation with potentially frightening consequences.

Yes, true, the Greek people had cast an overwhelming ‘No’ vote in a referendum organised by Syriza on the stunningly brutal bailout terms of the troika as the price for the country remaining within the European single currency. And, yes, the fact that Merkel and her EU cronies blithely rejected the result of this referendum confirmed that this is a European project driven by unaccountable bureaucracy rather than democracy.

But no matter, Tsipras had no choice other than to capitulate given the scale of the crisis and the balance of forces involved. To mine a historical comparison, the Bolsheviks were forced to capitulate at Brest Litovsk in 1918, signing a surrender peace with the Central Powers and ceding a large swathe of territory as a result. They did so despite going into the negotiations to take Russia out of the First World War confident of the prospects of revolution breaking out across Europe.

They were wrong and paid a heavy price.

Greece, a country of about 11 million people with the 51st largest economy in the world, could not in 2015 be expected to take on the forces of global capitalism by itself.  Despite defiant pledges to end austerity on the basis of the unimpeachable logic of a counter-cyclical investment led solution to the country’s crippling recession and banking crisis, designed to create growth, it stood naked and alone.

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Without a militant and determined pan-national anti-austerity movement to put serious political pressure on the EU (a pan-Europe gilet jaunes movement if you will), there was no realistic prospect of Syriza being able to prevail.

For the troika, economic and fiscal logic was not the issue, and neither was the suffering being foisted upon the Greek people in the interests, primarily, of German banks. No, the issue as far as the troika was concerned was ensuring that its writ as upholder of an economic model predicated on making the masses pay for the greed of the economic and financial elites remained ironclad.

Moreover, in taking Grexit off the table as an option – which Varoufakis rejected on the basis that it “would be the equivalent of announcing a large devaluation more than 18 months in advance: a recipe for liquidating all Greek capital stock and transferring it abroad by any means available” – the Greeks left themselves zero room to maneuver.

What cannot be gainsaid is the rotten contradiction that sits at the heart of the European single currency, dictating that monetary union without fiscal and political union is untenable. In fact, worse, the Greek crisis exposed the Eurozone as a de facto prison house of nations, imposing intolerable constraints of Eurozone member states when it comes to the fiscal tools available to navigate economic crises – an economic imposition on national sovereignty.

Despite the desire of extreme centrists to move towards a united Europe, Brexit and the rise of euroscepticism as a political current across the EU, due largely to the ravages of austerity, means that this will continue to be a distant and forlorn dream.

The question now then is can neoliberalism be resisted, defeated and ultimately replaced? Can we do what Martin Luther King famously urged in shifting from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society?

Those who believe that leaving the EU is a necessary precondition of achieving this objective are, I’m afraid, operating on the misconception that neoliberalism is a product of the EU, rather than the EU in its current form being a product of neoliberalism. In other words, independence from the EU does not mean automatic independence from neoliberalism.

There is simply no constitutional escape chute from a global economic system that remains entrenched despite the 2008 financial and economic crisis that it unleashed. It stands to reason, moreover, that if the economic forces that govern our lives are global in dimension then so must the resistance to those forces be at a certain point.

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“He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea,” said the great emancipator of Latin America, Simon Bolivar. Every revolutionary leader and movement throughout history has been confronted with the same seemingly impossible task of ploughing the sea when attempting to turn the tide of the accomplished fact.

The fall of Alexis Tsipras and Syriza marks a sad end to what began as a ray of hope in Greece and across Europe. The failure was not one of application or principle but of idealism, making promises that in the specific circumstances and nature of the crisis engulfing Greece had no chance of being kept. Syriza had the ideas but not the power to manifest those ideas.

If there is to be an alternative to neoliberalism in the West it will be brought about on the basis of nationalisation not nationalism. It will require governments committed to taking over the commanding heights of their economies, taking key industries into public ownership, asserting control over a deregulated banking sector, and introducing controls over the movement of capital. Their ability to do so will depend on political heft and will be rooted in collectivism and collective ideas.

Syriza may have possessed the will (though some would no doubt argue otherwise), but not the heft. What Europe needs is a government that carries both in equal parts.

In the face of such a government no amount of EU directives could conceivably thwart an idea whose time has come.  

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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