If people prevail, austerity fails: Lessons from Greece

Like this article? Chip in to keep stories likes these coming.

The Canadian connection. I find it touching that the song line starting most Syriza rallies during the Greek election was Leonard Cohen's, "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin." I might've preferred Cohen's "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A." But Germany plays a special role; it's been the source of the most brutal pressures on Greeks in the name of economic dogma, a.k.a. austerity. It's behind the overall crash with 60 per cent youth unemployment -- and also the fact that the young haven't just given up on owning a home, they despair of ever being able to marry.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras's first act after winning the election was visiting a memorial to Greeks slaughtered during the Nazi occupation. Syriza is demanding reparations from Germany which go far beyond the debt it owes the EU. They're also reminding everyone of the fact that Germany itself was forgiven its entire debt in 1953 -- basically because it was insupportable.

Why Syriza won. The short answer is: they put people first. I know all parties say that but (a) they only say it and (b) they only say it at elections. Syriza said and did it. Because they're not just a party but a coalition of parties, groups and movements, they naturally extended into communities and helped people with real needs. This in turn proved they weren't like other parties, just in it for power. That near cliché translated into real policies.

The EU/Germany clearly put numbers (of euros owed) first, as Greece's new finance minister says. So the debate was over priorities. If people prevail, austerity fails. It turns out austerity wasn't inevitable, like a law of nature; it was a question of values.

Syriza and the NDP. Idealistic leftists everywhere always ask if they should work in the current parties (NDP, U.K. Labour, Democrats) or create a new one. The argument for leaving is: they're unreformable. The argument for staying is: it's too hard to create an institution from scratch. Apparently no longer. Syriza didn't exist 15 years ago. Six years ago they were at 4.6 per cent. Their Spanish equivalent, Podemos (means "Yes We Can") formed a year ago. It's now tied with the governing party.

Neither Syriza nor Podemos are a media creation. The mass media scorned and mocked both. They have more to do with digital media, social networks and an ability to bypass the mainstreams. They are, at their core, not bureaucratic electoral machines but coalitions, so their identity isn't solely built on winning power. They also reek of newness. They're cut from a new cloth, even in the clothes they wear (Tsipras without a tie, Spain's Iglesias in T-shirts. Now think of Tom Mulcair).

PASOK, Greece's traditional left party, was in the government that imposed austerity. It often governed in the past and has "socialist" in its very name, yet everyone there unselfconsciously says that Syriza is the first left-wing government Greece has ever had. That's pretty damning. PASOK is down to 4.7 per cent of votes.

What Syriza and Podemos proved, against all expectations (including mine), is that you can reject the dominant neoliberal consensus on austerity, balanced budgets, etc., and succeed in the tired old electoral arena. But not if you're one of the tired old parties.

Where was the coverage? I expected wall-to-wall news about Sunday's Greek election. Monday morning it was almost nowhere. We got the blizzard in the U.S. and the red carpet at the SAG awards. CBC had the usual arrests and traffic jams. Yet this was the first successful electoral challenge to 30-plus years of a dominant political mentality. And it happened, as it were, here. Such challenges have been mounted in Latin America, they've become normal there. But Greece is First World (or almost, it's also pretty Middle Eastern). I think what's lacking is the mere vocabulary to think in new, non-neoliberal terms. When you don't have the language, it doesn't really exist. Not yet anyway.

Bonus fact on austerity. When Greek dockworkers struck to protest privatization of the historic port of Piraeus, their own government, at EU urging, conscripted them into the military en masse so that they could be jailed for refusing orders to work. Still wonder why so many of them hate those bastards?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Michalis Famelis/flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.