In September the Alliance Against Displacement (formerly Social Housing Alliance) began a discussion group series about austerity; the first discussion in the series focused on “Lessons from Greece.” The Volcano editorial collective participated in this discussion in order to better understand what happened in the Greek fight against government austerity policies, and what we in social movements outside Greece can learn from this experience, and defeat.
This was almost the summer that the army of austerity got turned back at the Greek gates. Had they won, the lessons from Greece could have been: a powerful social movement can open space in parliamentary politics for the return of social democracy, which can reverse the damage neoliberals have done to the social safety net over the last thirty years. But SYRIZA’s (Greece’s anti-austerity parliamentary party) negotiations with the European banks failed and the Greek people are set to suffer crushing austerity reforms,, so the lessons are less hopeful. They are more about who we are and how we organize our struggles than about simply winning a policy battle at a ballot box. Outside of Greece, we can apply the spirit of these lessons to our social movements, particularly in the context of the 2015 federal election in Canada. The recent events in Greece should be a wake-up call for anyone who thinks electing the NDP (or any other major party) will turn back the clock of austerity and neoliberalism.
What happened in Greece
Since the 2008 world financial crisis Greece has been beset by economic crisis, international bailouts, and imposed austerity packages that have wreaked havoc on the Greek social safety net, Greek people, and the union movement. A massive social movement grew up in opposition to this austerity and the power of the streets upset the Greek status quo. SYRIZA was elected to parliament on the promise that they could refuse further austerity policy demands from Europe. Against this promise, European-elites and banks went on a punitive offensive that sent a clear message to other countries struggling under austerity. They gave the Greek anti-austerity government an ultimatum: put in a deep austerity budget or leave the Eurozone. SYRIZA called this a “coup” by creditors, famously saying that the fascists seized power in Greece in 1967 by tanks, and in 2015 by the banks. Nevertheless, SYRIZA submitted and agreed to implement a brutal austerity budget.
Four lessons from SYRIZA’S defeat
Lesson one: Bailouts are about the stability of global capitalism, not the needs of people or societies. After WW2 West Germany had a higher debt than Greece has today. Germany was bailed out by the U.S. Marshall Plan and by a mass debt-forgiveness agreement in 1953, which included reparations money Germany owed to Greece. Historians say there were two reasons for this bailout: to stop the threat of USSR socialism spreading further throughout a Europe ravaged by inter-imperialist war and capitalist crisis, and to stop fascism from rising out of the ashes of WW2 as it had out of WW1. It is clear that today’s world powers are not concerned with the rise of fascism. Mass fascist parties are rising in Europe for the first time since WW2, and although Golden Dawn in Greece is the most significant of these fascist groups, the world’s financial elites elected to tighten further rather than ease the squeeze on Greece.
Lesson two: Our work is focused on building social movements, to expand and link together the power of the people. But the social movements in Greece were many times stronger than ours and they failed to create an alternative to austerity before SYRIZA ever had a chance to legislate (unsuccessfully) against austerity. Neither a social movement alone nor a parliamentary party alone are enough to turn back austerity capitalism.
Lesson three: The Troika rejected the mild Keynesianism of SYRIZA. A Vancouver-based commentator on Greece, Michael Rozworski defines this Keynesianism as government policy to “tax the rich, treat them as equal before the law rather than above it, and rebuild a state for the people rather than elites.” That their mild Keynesianism was blocked by international powers implies that local and even national governments that are connected to international capitalist networks do not have autonomy over their financial policy – they are not allowed to reject austerity. Just as the IMF has for years with Structural Adjustment Plans in the Global South, international banking powers are dictating the internal tax and social program policies of national governments. If this is true, then maybe social democracy is dead. Perhaps under globalized finance-capitalism, it is not possible to be anti-austerity, not possible to demand welfare state policies, not possible to win reforms under the rule of capital.
Lesson four: Facing this monstrous problem, it is clear that we don’t have an accurate analysis and plan to confront our political situation. Our movements continue to default to Keynesianism when it is possible that Keynesianism is dead. Cultural Studies theorist Stuart Hall challenges us to remember that austerity did not spring from the clever maneuvering of Thatcher and Reagan. Working-class disillusionment with the welfare state’s cold bureaucratism gave neoliberalism’s promise of “freedom” a seductive appeal. Our social movements must (of necessity) be responsive to the needs of people struggling in our communities, and fight the austerity state. But rather than be limiting, the collective struggle for daily needs can be the wellspring for an idea of freedom and justice.
We don’t have all the answers or all the solutions, but, as French philosopher Alain Badiou wrote of the possibilities SYRIZA did not follow, the ‘unknown’ is a political space. Had they refused the banker ultimatum between ‘accept austerity or leave the EU,’ their resistance to the banks could have been a path for working-class people across Europe (and around the world) to follow. By daring to venture into unknown spaces our dreams, our tasks, and the road ahead might become clear.