The Greek Grassroots Challenge to the Politics of Austerity
By Thomas Harrison and Joanne Landy
Co-Directors of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (New York)
Harrison and Landy recently returned from a trip to Greece, where they met with activists and others to gain a better understanding of the popular upsurge against the Greek government's austerity program. They can be reached by email at Email address removed
The crisis in Greece began with the discovery that the Greek government had been concealing the size of its debt in order to stay within the monetary union guidelines: it was revealed to be 120 percent of GDP, one of the highest percentages in the world. This massive debt was the result of several factors: reckless borrowing, for example to finance the Olympics and to buy weaponry from Germany and the U.S. (Greece spends more on defense as a proportion of GDP than any other EU member) and flagrant tax evasion by the rich -- but also the structure of the Eurozone itself, which was designed to create a market for German exports in Greece and the other weaker European economies by replacing weak local currencies with the Euro. This encouraged excessive borrowing. The "Troika" of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund agreed to a "rescue package" -- three big chunks of bailout money -- in return for Greece signing a "memorandum" promising massive privatization of public assets and harsh austerity measures -- cutting government spending on wages, pensions, social welfare -- to free up money for paying down the debt.
In part because of the worldwide recession, government revenues fell despite the spending cuts, and the debt continued to grow. Meanwhile, the austerity program provoked massive resistance from the Greek people. Huge protest marches on May Day 2010 were attacked by the riot police and followed by a general strike -- the first of 16 since that date. Over the next two years, hundreds of thousands demonstrated repeatedly in the streets of Athens and other cities, Parliament was stormed several times, clashes with the riot police were a regular occurrence, and public squares across the country, including Syntagma Square in Athens, were occupied. As Parliament continued to do the Troika's bidding, passing one savage austerity package after another, popular support for the two political parties that have dominated Greek politics since the 70s -- the conservative New Democracy and the nominally socialist PASOK -- collapsed.
Elections in the spring of 2012 constituted a political earthquake. In the first round of voting in May, the Coalition of the Radical Left, SYRIZA, hitherto one of the country's several minor parties, came in second, with nearly 17 percent of the vote, just behind New Democracy. PASOK saw its share of the vote plummet from 44 percent in the last election in 2009 to 13 percent. At the same time, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn gained parliamentary seat s -- 18 -- for the first time as a result of winning more than 425,000 votes, close to seven percent of the total. This is in comparison to three years before, when Golden Dawn had a tiny .46 percent of the vote. After attempts to form a new government failed, another election was scheduled for June 17. With opinion polls showing that SYRIZA might come in first, the Greek corporate media and European, especially German, officials went into high gear, warning the Greek people that a victory by SYRIZA would bring internal anarchy and result in Greece's expulsion from the Eurozone. To a certain extent this terror campaign worked. Despite the growing popularity of SYRIZA and its leader Alexis Tsipras, many voters apparently took fright and either abstained or voted for the parties of the memorandum. By the same token, however, many other voters rallied to SYRIZA for refusing to back down on its opposition to the memorandum. As a result, while SYRIZA again came in second, this time it won an astounding 27 percent of the vote.
Everyone seems to expect that the current coalition government of New Democracy, PASOK, and Democratic Left -- a more conservative social-democratic split-off from SYRIZA -- will be short-lived and that new elections might very well bring SYRIZA to power. The Troika has so far appeared determined to make an example of Greece by not allowing any renegotiation of the memorandum. Meanwhile, the country is enduring depression-like conditions, with official unemployment now at 23 percent but probably closer to 30 percent in reality, and youth unemployment exceeding 50 percent.
This was the background to our visit to Athens, July 5-12. We met with a number of SYRIZA activists, including party leaders, a woman involved in immigrant rights, and two young men from the Front of the Greek Anti-Capitalist Left, ANTARSYA. We also spoke to several people who were not political activists.
Athens certainly does not look like a city in the midst of great upheaval, let alone on the verge of revolution. We were in a working class district at one point and in another residential area that seemed pretty modest, as well as in the center. Especially for foreign visitor s , signs of economic distress were hard to detect, although we were told that there is great suffering "behind closed doors." We can't recall seeing any begging. Wherever we were, we scarcely eve r noticed political signs or posters or people leafleting. Of course, it was summertime , when things simmer down for a while. Perhaps too we were seeing signs of fatigue after two and a half years of militant protest. On the other hand , steel workers were on strike in an Athens suburb, and there were environmentalist protests against gold mining in Chalkidiki. An d we heard and read about almost daily attacks on immigrants by members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, Chrysi Avgi (more about which below.)
Michalis Spourdalakis, a professor at the University of Athens, told us some of the history of SYRIZA. Until now, it has been a coalition of several parties rather than a single organization. The largest by far is Synaspism Ã³s , whose older leaders come out of the Eurocommunist current that split with the Communist Party, the KKE, in the 1980s. SYRIZA itself emerged from the Greek wing of the anti-globalization movement about eleven years ago. But it was the great popular upsurge against austerity that turned SYRIZA into a major force. Since the crisis began, the organization has been joined by some of the more leftwing members of PASOK, including a few members of parliament. Its mass support, however, is recent and comes from the streets. Time and again we heard that SYRIZA had earned the respect and loyalty of activists, especially of young people, by its intense involvement in and its "non-hegemonic" approach to the strikes, demonstrations and occupations. SYRIZA, we were told, showed its commitment to listening to and building the movement -- r ather than simply recruiting members, building their own organization, and heavy-handedly insisting on acceptance of SYRIZA's agenda.
Spourdalakis stressed, as did most of the Greeks we spoke to, that SYRIZA is not a typical electoral machine but is instead rooted quite deliberately in mass actions -- strikes, demonstrations, occupations -- in the midst of which its MPs and officials can be found along with rank and filers. SYRIZA people we spoke to seemed acutely aware of the danger of substitutionism, that is, substituting the party for social movements. At the same time, Spourdalakis insisted, having a presence in parliament is essential because that is where so much media attention is focused and where, of course, major decisions are made.
Now that it has achieved a position of great trust and potential responsibility, SYRIZA has decided to transform itself into a unified organization, rather than a coalition of different organizations, and to recruit aggressively. While we were in Athens, SYRIZA announced that it was launching a big membership drive with the goal of growing from the current 15,000 t o a party with many times that number of members. The separate components of the SYRIZA coalition will be able to b ecome tendencies within the party. Recruitment will take place at worksites, on campuses, in the streets and at the local assemblies that SYRIZA has been holding since before the elections. We attended one of these assemblies in an open area in the working-class suburb of Peristeri, attended by around 600 people, according to our estimate. Tsipras gave a rousing speech, and we were told there would have been a discussion period following the talk had it not been so hot outside.
Spourdalakis was cautiously optimistic about SYRIZA's future and said the party's ability to grow depended very much on staying deeply connected to extra-parliamentary struggles. For one thing, SYRIZA is now engaged in organizing unorganized workers -- for example, bookstore employees, couriers, tutors, and other urban service workers -- into new unions. Greece has two main labor federations, one for public employees and the other for private , both of them controlled by PASOK, and a third, smaller but still sizeable federation run by the KKE. Most Greek unions contain caucuses that are linked to SYRIZA and ANTARSYA. We were told by ANTARSYA that their group is especially significant in the teachers' union, as is SYRIZA.