Syriza and Greece: Dancing with Austerity.

Ronan Burtenshaw on one hundred days
of Greece’s SYRIZA government

SYRIZA’s election on January 25th was a historic event. In the midst of a deep economic crisis and a steep decline of faith in political elites, Europe had elected its first radical Left government since the Spanish civil war. Veteran leftists cried and embraced, socialists from across the continent and beyond flocked to Athens to sing their anthems, and Greek society breathed a sigh of relief at a break from years of immiseration.

Yet, in the party election tent and headquarters, the mood was quite different. The weight of responsibility – to a society suffering enormously, a Left that had been battered by generations of defeat and even more profound causes threatened by phenomena like the rise of the far-right and the world’s environmental crisis – weighed heavily on the new princes of European politics. With a state squeezed between an unpayable debt and a highly unpalatable exit from the euro, SYRIZA were in many ways elected into a prison.

So it proved in the weeks that followed. After a first month of highly astute symbolism and mass rallies in support of the government, the second was shaped by the nature of their agreement with the EU, ECB and IMF on February 20th, which promised to put large parts of their agenda on hold in return for not forcing new austerity measures onto the government.

This agreement locked SYRIZA into a highly fractious negotiation process in which the institutions attempted to make the Greek economy scream by choking off liquidity to the financial system and withholding tranches of bailout funds to which they are legally entitled. To compliment this, the Troika openly mocked and attempted to delegitimise the elected government, blackmailing it in public and even lobbying for regime change in the composition of the government.

May and June are crucial months for the negotiations. An interim agreement which sees the release of some bailout funds is likely to be necessary this month to prevent a cash crunch for the government, which is already seeking the reserves of local authorities to cover costs. Then in June the second bailout programme will expire, necessitating a more fundamental agreement on a new one.

SYRIZA is dancing desperately to prevent itself being snared in another memorandum agreement like its predecessors. Such an outcome would double down on the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberalism just as its first serious challenge in a generation appeared to be on the horizon. But is it nimble enough on its feet?


Dimitrios Tzanakopoulos is Alexis Tsipras’ Chief of Staff. A serious Marxist theorist with an utterly coherent anti-capitalist worldview, he is at the very heart of the new government, directing the affairs of the Prime Minister’s office. He remains “optimistic that there will be a deal” with the partners. “Europe needs to ask if austerity is the future. If not, there must be a solution to these social catastrophes. SYRIZA has promised to find one and this is what we will do”.

In many ways the government’s line in negotiations mirrors his Althusserian politics. It views instability as the most important threat for the ruling class and capital accumulation. The election of SYRIZA brought such instability, inserting an unpredictable and politically divergent player into decision-making in Europe. So, the logic goes, the number one goal of European elites will be to overthrow the government. Not by violent means but by a soft coup, which they are currently attempting to execute by combination of economic strangulation and political humiliation.

This instability thesis is a profound challenge to the dominant narrative of capitalism today, which sees it as a system based on risk and reward. But actually it has a long history as a critique, with even moderate figures like Keynes noting instability’s effects on the “animal spirits” of the economy. The prevalence of the word “confidence” in contemporary discourse evidences the degree to which economic and financial players value security.

Therefore if they cannot overthrow SYRIZA, and if no capitulation is forthcoming, the team around Alexis Tsipras believe that European elites and the IMF will compromise. This is because the third option, the last on the table, brings about an explosion of instability: the threat of Grexit from the eurozone.

This opinion is shared by Loudovikos Kotsonopoulos, party intellectual and senior advisor in the Economy Ministry. “My prediction is that there will be a compromise. European elites fear a geopolitical realignment. It is very difficult for the European Union to suffer a defeat of such magnitude as a departure of one of its members. Until now the only direction was countries coming into the EU. If this ceased to be the only option it would have significant ramifications. I’m not sure that they can manage such a defeat, and neither are they. But they know as well that we are in trouble if we exit the euro. So it is tense. What are the sides going to give? And how can this be presented as a victory for both?”.

Dimitris Ioannou, writer for party publication Enthemata, is more sceptical about a compromise. “We come with arguments, they reject them, then they say, ‘you’re wasting time’. What does that mean? It’s just saying, agree with us. You’re wasting time between getting elected and doing what we say”.


There seems to be some surprise in the party ranks at the degree of ruthlessness displayed by the institutions. Some had earnestly believed that more allies could be found in the battle against austerity. Others simply thought that Europe’s elites would be forced to stick more closely to their stated support for democratic legitimacy and a degree of social justice in the economy.

In fact, these elites, particularly those around Merkel’s government in Germany, are much more politically and strategically astute than they had been given credit for. The discursive trick of left-populists, not just in Greece but Spain too, of trying to box them into a corner by holding them to their stated principles has not succeeded in shifting the political terrain.

As Ioannou says, much of this has to do with a complicit media. “Today the institutions will say, ‘stick to the agreements, you’ve signed them’, tomorrow they’ll blatantly break the agreements to disperse funds and the press will simply report the situation as if there is no hypocrisy and we are to blame”.

But even though the party’s strategy seems to be failing internationally, producing retreat after retreat and ominously creeping towards capitulation, it has secured significant support internally. In their first month of power more than double the number who voted for SYRIZA in the election said they supported the government’s battle in Europe.

Despite this eroding somewhat in recent weeks, with the media particularly turning on the leftists after they attempted to break the power of the oligarchs, they remain around fifteen points ahead of their right-wing opponents in New Democracy. This is twice the margin with which they won the election only a few weeks ago.

Markos, a political-science graduate who supported SYRIZA despite doubts about their likelihood of success, says he thinks they made two very smart moves when they were elected. “In the first month they amassed enormous political capital which they are able to consume now that things are not going so well. First, they had [Finance Minister] Varoufakis fight with the institutions publicly. This made Greek people feel some dignity, which was something they had lost. They were used to ministers going abroad and being humiliated or Prime Ministers, like [George] Papandreou, being overthrown because he dared to utter the word ‘referendum’. Papandreou returned on the plane and realised he wasn’t Prime Minister any more. This is how it went and to break from it was significant.

“Second, thanks to their coalition with the right-populist ANEL, but also the way that they constructed their discourse in the first month, they played the national unity card. This is a dangerous strategy, and we should recognise this, but it proved very profitable”.

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Stratis Bournazos is editor of Enthemata, and one of SYRIZA’s most highly-regarded intellectuals. He says that, in the first week after elections, people were smiling. “And not left-wing people!”, he emphasises. Indeed there was a joke circulating in the month after that said ‘eight out of ten Greeks support the SYRIZA government, the remaining two are the leftists’.

SYRIZA is unusual by the standards of European Left parties in power. Unlike the radically reforming social-democratic parties before and after the world wars, the German SPD or British Labour Party for example, SYRIZA does not have a mass membership, at only around 30,000. Instead it relies on more distant support from its positive relationship with Greece’s social movements.

For most of its history Synapsismos, the main current of SYRIZA, was quite a middle-class party, known for its left-wing intellectuals. It was, Markos says, largely a party of the nice and polite. But its reach extends far beyond this now, as was evidenced by the 42% support Panagiotis Lafazanis, the Energy Minister and leader of the party’s more radical Left Platform, received in working-class Piraeus in the recent election.

This explosion in support began in 2012, two weeks before the last general election, when a party that had been 4 or 5% for most of its history suddenly became a player. “Tsipras came out and said ‘we want a Left government’. It was a brilliant idea, saying exactly what needed to be said at the time. He gave a political project to the people to defend society when most of the Left was waiting for socialism. SYRIZA took all the chips on the table.”

But how long can its popular support last? There is no doubt that its rivals have been substantially discredited by the devastation wrought on Greek society in recent years. Yet, it seems on current trajectory that the party will fail to reverse much of the damage done by austerity. Will its democratic credentials, its campaign against the oligarchs, its commitment to root out corruption and its young, insurgent character be enough?

Bournazos does not believe hegemony-with-austerity is a viable prospect. “It will be difficult to be the dominant party while continuing with austerity. This is why we were elected, why Greece has a Left government. It can only endure up to a point”.

It seems more likely that democratisation, a decline in repression, civil rights and governmental transparency, all things SYRIZA are firmly committed to, will be the collateral benefits of an economic improvement. In Greece, the economy keeps governments in power or causes them to collapse. The reason is simple: due to poverty, which now effects half of the population, the demands are urgent. The heart of politics today is thoroughly material.

Unfortunately for SYRIZA this material basis needed to implement their programme is no more likely to be achieved by a Grexit. Many on the further Left have proposed this as a solution to the country’s woes, with the Left Platform in particular advocating it within the party and both other significant leftist forces, ANTARSYA and the Communist Party, arguing for it from outside. But in reality its prospects look bleak.

Part of this is the fault of SYRIZA, which has failed to prepare in any serious way for a Grexit scenario. Rebel party MP and London-based economist Costas Lapavitsas is one of the few to attempt this – but his treatise with German post-Keynesian Heiner Flassbeck didn’t delve too deeply into specifics, despite being the most advanced proposal on the table. In addition, it relied on European elites providing a soft-landing with debt reduction and stable value for the new currency – things which look thoroughly utopian in the context of the negotiations.

In a country with a very low productive base, turned into a debt colony by EU economics, reliant on services and which has for years imported about twice of what it exported, Grexit produces highly unfavourable dynamics.

A new Drachma that is likely to be next-to-worthless, confining consumption largely to what is produced internally in a state that does not produce enough food to feed itself. A significant increase in the value of the public debt, which would still be denominated in euro, would necessitate a repudiation and cutting off access to international markets for the foreseeable future. A fall in domestic consumption of more than a third would follow in a society that has already suffered from six years of austerity.

In addition, as Kotsonopoulos’ experience in the Economy Ministry has shown him, “80-85% of our public investment comes from European funds. So, if we leave, we will not have any plan for internal investments. Any national development plan we could have that would be impactful would be inextricably linked to these funds”.

Put simply, the only way Grexit could work without harshly punishing workers and the poor, especially given the timeframe and since SYRIZA has assumed power when the movements are at a low ebb, is if the state took over the economy. It would need to impose capital controls, introduce rationing and nationalise the banks, before expropriating large portions of the wealth of the rich. Even more concretely – it would need to send soldiers to the Greek countryside to tell farmers that their tomatoes weren’t going to Germany for payment in euros, but to feed the hungry in Athens instead.

Turning Greece into Europe’s Cuba was never SYRIZA’s mandate. In addition, the society is simply not ready for this. There is no team of technocrats capable of overseeing a transition to a command economy, the solidarity networks are impressive but not capable of becoming the dominant provider of goods and services, and Greeks are still attached to the trappings of consumer society, which would all but disappear under a Grexit.

That is even if things went well after a rupture – but what if the desperation plunged a society already in turmoil into chaos? What would be the ramifications for Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party which came third in recent elections? How would the NATO-affiliated, ultra-nationalist Greek military, which previously ruled the country in a junta, respond?

Many argue, with increasing credibility, that a break is the only prospect of escaping neoliberalism. But SYRIZA would have to do a lot of preparation and convincing to make this prospect viable. To date, it has been unwilling.

And so it dances with austerity, attempting to introduce what it can of its urgently-needed humanitarian agenda amid a hail of threats and sabotage by European elites who know the precarious position it finds itself in.

Without more anti-austerity voices at the European table success will be difficult, much as the party will continue to fight. SYRIZA is not minded to sell out, despite the condemnation of its ultra-Left detractors. But neither is Europe likely to come to the rescue. Kotsonopoulos says the international situation leaves him “pessimistic”.

“Other left-wing politics will not come to power in central Europe. It is as simple as that. The only possibility is that the German Social Democratic Party will move somewhat left. There is absolutely no chance that the radical Left will win in Germany or France in the foreseeable future. In the periphery too the wave looks unlikely. Podemos and Sinn Féin could achieve positive results but are not likely to win at the moment. That is not to say it won’t happen in the future. But now, the odds are against us”.

SYRIZA have found no allies in the governments of other peripheral states like Ireland, who are also creaking under austerity’s weight. The way that previous Greek Prime Minister Samaras behaved before he left office, effectively destroying his society to protect the political establishment, is now the approach other governments of the periphery are adopting towards SYRIZA. There could probably be a debt deal if there was a united front of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. But there won’t be. Enda Kenny and his allies know that the moment there is a new deal there will also be a new politics.

But, for Markos, SYRIZA’s difficulties don’t change how he feels about his vote on January 25th. “I voted for SYRIZA very consciously and I’m proud of my vote. Why? Because society reaches a certain point where a breach in the political system is absolutely necessary. It becomes stuck and suffocates potentialities. This is the stage we were in before the election after so many defeats. We needed SYRIZA to be elected to bring it to the next phase”.

Asked about the future, Bournazos is philosophical on Greece’s experiment with the radical Left. “Growing up I never expected to see the Left in power. As a member I was absolutely certain that SYRIZA would never form a government. Well, it happened. After so many decades. Who will say what is impossible now?”.


Ronan Burtenshaw is a columnist with Village writing from Athens.
Lead photo: Konstantinis Tsakalidis.