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How Syriza Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Status Quo
Two years have passed since the Greek government, composed of Syriza and the right-wing “Independent Greeks” party, bowed to the pressure of the European “institutions”, following a referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Greeks rejected further EU-imposed austerity measures.
The period since then provides the necessary time distance to reflect soberly on the Greek experience during the tumultuous period between January and July 2015, as well as the meaning of the referendum and the Greek government’s hitherto record in office. From today’s perspective, it can easily be argued that Syriza’s attempt at achieving real change not only failed miserably; it also inflicted a major blow to the Left’s credibility on an international scale.
However, before any appraisal of Syriza’s record in office since the summer of 2015 can commence, it is important to narrate some of the facts as such. In other words, to use the classical Marxist method of crosschecking public discourses with historical reality. In doing so, we wish to give an overview of the factors leading to Syriza`s strategic retreat. We reject the moralistic notion of a “betrayal” on the part of Syriza`s leadership, arguing instead that the roots of the party’s subsequent trajectory lie with the structural weaknesses of the party’s overall strategy in the years preceding the assumption of office by Alexis Tsipras. We ask if – even at the last moment before the capitulation to the creditors’ terms – the objective conditions for an alternative path existed.
The first period of the governance
Syriza assumed office in January 2015, after a stint as the country’s largest opposition party since the near-total collapse of PASOK in the 2012 election. For analytical reasons, we shall name the period following the assumption of office as “the period of negotiations”. During these months, Syriza – with finance minister Yiannis Varoufakis at the helm of the negotiations team -attempted to reach a ‘fair-just’ agreement with the Troika, composed of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The logic behind this attempt was that the “Institutions” would inevitably agree with Greece’s suggestions because doing otherwise would risk triggering a collapse of the entire European structure. This illusion was promoted by individuals in Tsipras’s inner circle, and even by Varoufakis, whose early negotiating stance was predicated on the idea that the players would ‘act rationally’, recognizing that the previous austerity agreement reached with New Democracy was impossible to implement, and so reach an agreement.
Already in February, the Greek government made concessions by reaching a deal to resolve the impasse over its €240bn (£177) bailout. This was a tactical move by Syriza,, which beyond any doubt showed that their strategy was pivoted on the idea of remaining within the EU but on the basis of an agreement not as disastrous as those signed by the previous governments. The obvious culprit at this stage was Yianis Varoufakis, who as finance minister touted the agreement as a positive step towards a just agreement.
As the months passed, it was becoming clear that this strategy was devoid of any realistic chance of success. Nonetheless, Syriza emphasized that it had no desire to embark on a head-on confrontation with the EU, or to elaborate any alternative economic model which this confrontation would inevitably necessitate. The impossibility of an understanding was becoming clear by the end of April, when Tsipras replaced Varoufakis with Euclid Tsakalotos, the current minister of finance, as head of the negotiating team. The strategy of “convincing the Europeans” ended at this point. Tsipras had since then decided to reach an agreement with the creditors. The ensuing referendum was a move Tsipras embarked upon, in full knowledge that he planned an eventual compromise, which would be disadvantageous to the interests of the working class. However, it is highly likely that Tsipras decided to go through with the referendum, believing that a defeat therein would make backtracking on the promises of “ripping the memoranda” much easier or would allow Syriza to resign from the political leadership of the country. In any case, the only plausible explanation for Tsipras’s actions is that the referendum was not organized in order to be won. Against this expectation, the Greek people gave “OXI” (“No”) a resounding vote. Nevertheless, and faced with the blackmail of the “institutions”, the Syriza-led government capitulated swiftly afterwards. This trajectory of events has been presented as inevitable. However, historical processes contain several possibilities and conjunctural shifting points, and certain events are to a great extent determined by human will.
What would happen if events in the summer of 2015 took a different course? Several things, we believe. However, let’s focus on the most elementary and obvious fact: Syriza as a political project would have evolved in an entirely different manner had it elaborated a serious Plan B. Could this have happened within the period of few months? Possibly yes, though not with the best results. Let’s not forget that Syriza was in opposition since 2012, and nearly everyone within the party had since then become aware of the strong probability that they would form a government. Instead of preparing alternative plans in case Plan A (overthrowing the memoranda while remaining in the eurozone) failed, a majority of influential political actors within Syriza consumed their energies in factional struggles to place themselves in favorable positions of power within the party, as well as within the prospective government structure.
An exemplary consequence of this sluggish factionalism is the failure to hold a public debate within the party, its local organizations and wider Greek society in order to jointly formulate an alternative plan, which could serve as an effective Plan B – even if not a perfect one. The Left Platform minority, favouring Grexit, partly (though not equally) shared the responsibility for this inaction. The ideas developed by some of its members, and the limited debate that was developed within its ranks, never extended to a wider debate open to the public. The relatively recent experiences of Latin American countries, which could have served as a source of inspiration and a process of thought, were not taken into account, not discussed seriously, and no effort was made to build solidarity with the progressive movements and governments in the global South. Here, solidarity could mean building funding links, drawing on the technocratic knowhow of the financial ministers of those countries, and symbolic acts of solidarity. Instead, the leaders of the Left Platform were absorbed in the wheeling and dealing throughout the January-July period (and even before that, during the three preceding years), attempting to place themselves in a better position within the party apparatus and conducting their struggle against Tsipras’s course from a purely programmatic angle.
Leaving aside the Grexit solution, supported by a minority, the question is, did Syriza as a whole prepare any alternative programme for institutional reforms during its time as opposition? No, not at all. While specific problems with regards to public institutions in Greece were omnipresent, there was no specific plan or attempt at reforming them into a progressive direction.
An additional error committed by Syriza was was the strategic shift of focus from the social movements to the logic of electoral politics, after years of protests against governments that implemented austerity measures. This happened as movement figures were given official posts in the parliamentary opposition, or were drawn into the state as advisors after January 2015. The guiding assumption here was that the sooner Syriza would reach the threshold of government, the sooner the need for this scale of mobilization would eclipse.
Since 2012, when the party emerged as the main opposition in parliament, there had been no systematic effort to transform the various anti-austerity mobilisations into a permanent state of movementist emergency. The party’s response after 2015 to all the efforts that were organized from below, was to avoid rocking the boat of governmental “business as usual”. The zenith of this process can be seen in the fall-out from mobilization in June 2013 against the decision by the ruling conservative New Democracy to shut down the state broadcaster ERT as part of austerity cutbacks. The personnel responded to the government’s decision in occupying the building and running ERT themselves without payment. They were committed to creative broadcasting and the worker’s control in the process of production. However, when ERT was relaunched under the Syriza-led government, what happened to its promise of reconstituting the broadcaster? Helena Sheehan notes in her recent study on Syriza, The Syriza Wave, that “in government, instead of affirming and building on what this popular struggle had achieved, (Syriza) disregarded the popular demand for a new model of public broadcasting, based on critical and creative programming and worker’s self management. Instead, they reinstated the old order and hierarchical management. Instead, of public broadcasting, it became government broadcasting, as it had been previously, expect that Syriza was now the government whose line was privileged” Taking office was considered by Syriza to be the one and only solution for all the maladies that Greek society confronted throughout the years of crisis. Naturally, this mentality dominated Syriza’s approach after winning power in 2015.
The entire process of negotiations was delegated to a small unaccountable team presenting themselves as the “experts” who could solve the Greek issue, and which conducted negotiations in a non-transparent way. From the very beginning, it was evident that there was no desire on behalf of the creditors to seriously discuss the proposals submitted during the negotiations by Varoufakis. A referendum under these circumstances – in which the Greek state was not yet fully bankrupt as it would become in July – would have been an ideal path to follow, to the extent that there would still be a possibility to fight on better terms, without the baggage of the February 20 “tactical retreat”, while mobilising the popular strata for the looming confrontation. Instead, the referendum took place at a time when the state was fully paralyzed, with much less room left to maneuver.
Can these developments be explained solely with reference to the lack of experience on the part of Syriza ministers and negotiators? The answer is simply no. The events, as they unfolded after the referendum, were not accidental, but were connected to another weakness, which formed a dual structural feature of Syriza: the lack of inner-party democracy, combined with a lack of firm rootedness within the Greek working class. Ever since the 2012 elections and the surge in Syriza’s electoral support, there had been a growing concentration of power in the upper layers of the party hierarchy, alongside a paralysis of democratic mechanisms within the party. The logic of this degeneration of democracy was the idea that the salvation of the country could be accomplished by a small decision-making team centered around party leader Alexis Tsipras.
This degeneration of democracy culminated in Tsipras’s decision to ignore the statement issued by the party’s Central Committee on July 15, after the agreement, in which 109 of its 201 members took a position against the Greek government and the European creditors, calling the agreement “a new memorandum with onerous and humiliating terms”. The statement came as Tsipras was pressuring parliament to meet the ultimatum set by the European authorities for legislating core components the latest drastic austerity measures. The 109 Central Committee members called on the government “not to succumb to the extortionate ultimatums of the creditors”, and warned that the agreement is “not compatible with the ideas and the principles of the Left”. The statement also demanded an immediate convening of the Central Committee to assess the agreement Tsipras brought back from the meeting with European Union. Tsipras had previously promised to hold a Central Committee discussion on any deal before a parliamentary vote. The smaller Political Secretariat of Syriza earlier voted unanimously for a Central Committee meeting to be convened. And yet this meeting never took place. On the top of this, Tsipras reneged on his promise to hold a party conference and contest new elections, in which Syriza would run on the basis of the decisions made by a party conference, and not on the basis of the Third Memorandum.
There was also no serious systematic effort made by Syriza to recruit new members to its ranks, something apparent in the relative stagnation of total party membership between the 2012 and 2015 elections, as compared to the increase in its electoral support. The party’s small members and lack of specialised personnel was a crucial factor in the way things turned out. This left the party with a Scylla and Charybdis choice. One the one hand, the few members with specialized skills belonging to the party had to be utilized, because otherwise ministries and other national institutions would remain firmly in the hands of personnel associated with the previous neoliberal administrations. On the other hand, the fact that these members were used meant that the party was inevitably absorbed into the state apparatus.
This should not be read to imply that Syriza lacked popular legitimacy. On the contrary, the government’s legitimacy was affirmed by the large numbers – almost half a million – who showed up to the main “OXI” rally in Syntagma Square on 3 July (despite it being a spontaneous occurrence, not organized by Syriza or any other left-wing party). Syriza drew its power from the movements and the people of the squares that had sprung up since the outbreak of the crisis. Nevertheless, it made no serious attempt at stabilizing and expanding this dialectic to working spaces and neighborhoods, which could function as locations of resistance in a possible confrontation with the EU. In other words, the focus after 2012 shifted increasingly to the management of parliamentary power rather than on the expansion of the power present at the grassroots of society.
The 5th of July, the day that the Greek people voted – against all odds – against neoliberal Europe can easily be defined as a “transformative event” in the sense intended by the political scientist William Sewell. It was a conjunctural moment that accelerated historical momentum, and offered the opportunity for history to be taken under the control of the people. It was also a decisive, subjectively formative experience for its participants. Despite bullying by the mainstream media and the EU, and their scaremongering that a possible OXI vote would signal the country’s doom, despite the European Central Bank’s decision to limit liquidity to Greek banks, despite the poverty many Greeks were experiencing (and are still experiencing), the Greek people emphatically rejected the EU’s austerity policies. This defining moment for modern Greek history opened an entire range of possibilities. This was the climax of a historical process, a sequence of struggles, in which the masses had been politicized.
Contrary to the narrative peddled by Syriza, the Greek people were ready for a confrontation with the EU, no matter how uncertain the outcome. The stakes had been made clear by the closure of the banks and the scaremongering of the ruling class, and yet thousands had gathered for OXI in one of the biggest public events in modern Greek history. By contrast, the gathering for NAI (“Yes”) two days before drew a much smaller crowd. The great personal responsibility of Alexis Tsipras lies exactly with that certain point in time, which interrupted the political momentum: the signing of a capitulation agreement, which he presented as the only realistic option. The consequence was a sharp shift from a mood that everything is possible, to the restoration of that known capitalist-realist principle: Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative”. This U-turn transformed the entire political climate, demonstrating to ordinary Greeks that history had ceased. What Fukuyuma had celebrated as end of the history during the collapse of USSR, Tsipras made reality by legitimizing and institutionalizing a vicious circle of permanent austerity. Once again, politics seemed again completely irrelevant to people’s daily lives. This brought with it a state of relative demobilization, which effectively blocked the possibilities of any struggle for social change in the immediate future. The impact was not confined to Greece. The electoral results in Spain last year are a good indicator of the aftershock of developments in Greece. The whole electoral campaign of the People’s Party was based on using Greece as a reason not to vote for Podemos, lest Spain end up in the same position.
Could Tsipras have acted otherwise? The reply, again, is yes: even at the last moment. The most radical thing to do at this stage would have been to implement Varoufakis’ parallel emergency currency to deal with the pressing issue of liquidity. The other option would have been to sign to memorandum, declare the failure of the strategy pursued since January 2015, and to hold the scheduled party conference, where an electoral program speaking openly about a possible Grexit would be discussed. Proceeding to such a step would have preserved the party`s unity, while also demonstrating a basic level of dignity on behalf of Syriza. It would also have prevented a complete delegitimization of the left as political force, both within and outside of Greece.
However, Tsipras did not do any of this. The left minority within the party duly left, following the leader’s defiance of the party’s democratic decision to hold a conference after the agreement. Instead, Syriza participated in the September elections as a split party, presenting a delusional program promising immediate solutions to the question of Greek debt, along with welfare measures to counterbalance the austerity demanded by the Troika.
Syriza’s much-touted plans for dealing with the debt have not been followed through. A Truth Committee on Public Debt was established on 4th April 2015, at the initiative of then President of the Hellenic Parliament, Zoe Konstantopoulou. The Committee concluded that the debt was illegal, unsustainable and odious, in that the creditors had overstepped their mandate to provide the loans and violated the rights and obligations embodied in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It should be repudiated and payments suspended. But Tsipras abolished the Committee in September 2015. According to the framework in place, Greece’s debt will be considered sustainable as long as the total cost of servicing it (interest and principal) does not exceed 15% of GDP annually. Greece might be offered some assistance in achieving this ‘sustainability’ by extending the term of some of the existing loans and providing reduction of interest. This is the best that Greece can hope for from its ‘partners’ in the EU.
Regarding the welfare promises, most of these were deemed by the Troika to be contrary the agreements already signed. Syriza thus won the elections with unrealistic promises, and with an electorate disoriented by the dizzying crescendo of events that spanned from the victorious referendum to the elections.
From a memorandum to a memorandum – a vicious circle with no end.
The developments over the last two years in Greece can be summed up as a continuation of the same intensity of austerity, but without a political subject inside or outside parliament able to substantially challenge the EU-imposed neoliberal order of things. Syriza pushed through a new memorandum in May, amid a heated debate in parliament. The fourth memorandum incorporates a series of tough austerity measures, such as reducing pensions and imposing taxes to ensure 3.5% primary surpluses per year until 2022. Also agreed were surpluses of 2% per year for the period after and until 2060. For this, the Greek government has received absolutely no concessions on the debt issue, and it is highly unlikely that it will receive any in the future.
On the social level, Syriza has been disconnected from all the social movements that were instrumental in its surge during the 2010-2015 period. The party has been transformed into a managerial organization of state power, with the key aim being its own preservation, while ignoring social demands from below. It has been absorbed by the political establishment it was meant to challenge.
How can this transformation in the party be explained? First, after the split in August 2015, the party lost its most dynamic political elements and any connections it had with the social movements. Despite the dire circumstances, some members genuinely affiliated with the movements that stayed inside the party, believed that the political situation would at least show some signs of improvement compared to the time under the Troika-appointed governments. This was not the case. It could not happen because this extended beyond the structural limitations imposed by Troika and accepted by the government. These limitations have been used by the party ever since as the main political alibi to explain all of its inadequacies, inertia and mistakes. Syriza’s leadership had believed that the country could change, if it continued to act like the previous governments did in the years preceding the crisis – that is, by governing consensually, leaving everyone satisfied, and not raising any confrontation with any social group – especially the upper classes – even though the situation clearly demanded at least some rudiments of a serious confrontation. It is not enough to blame Troika rule for the last two years; there has been a lack of political will on the part of Syriza to challenge the status quo.
For example, Syriza did little to curb the Church’s influence in Greek politics. On the contrary, its leadership consented to the latter’s political role. An example was the government’s decision not to include Nikos Filis in the government, following a cabinet reshuffle last November. Filis was the former minister for education and religious affairs, a longtime member of the reformist left and, until recently, the head of Syriza daily newspaper, Avgi. His appointment in the new cabinet was blocked by the intervention of the Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of Church, due to the former minister’s efforts at reforming religious education, turning what had essentially been a catechism class into the study of comparative religion. Given this timid backtracking, it is not hard to guess what Syriza’s practical position will be vis-à-vis the more structural question of the separation of church and state, or the issue of taxing the Church’s vast wealth.
Leaving the deep state untouched
Despite Syriza`s shocking retreat after the referendum result, one aspect of its current position was becoming clearly evident even before the party assumed office in 2015. For all its talk of “anti-austerity” and “ripping the memoranda apart”, the group around Tsipras wasted no time after 2012 in reassuring the powers that be within and outside of Greece, that a Syria-led government would abide by the rules of the game and not disturb the core of the capitalist state. The rules of the game in this case are twofold. They consist on the one hand of the short-, medium-, and long-term interests of Greek capitalism, and on the other of the interests of the Greek state.
By appointing the “Independent Greek” conspiracy theorist and ardent nationalist Panos Kammenos as minister of defence, Tsipras prolonged the nationalist streak that characterized Greek politics under the previous PASOK and New Democracy governments. While some supporters of Syriza suggested that placing Kammenos in this post would eventually “neutralize” him, this was far from the case. On the contrary, Kammenos and his belligerent antics – flying in combat gear on board military helicopters above disputed rock islands in the Aegean Sea, for example – have contributed to heightening tensions with neighboring Turkey, where each of Kammenos’s statements are warmly welcomed as a validation of Erdogan’s own nationalist rhetoric. Given that both countries came close to war over the demarcation of sea boundaries in 1996 – Greece wants to extend its territorial waters by 12 sea miles, effectively blocking Turkish access to the Aegean – the role of Kammenos in this case should be taken very seriously. Greece’s defence budget – though outside the scope the Troika’s jurisdiction – remains at exceptionally high levels. The volume of arms expenditure has even increased under Syriza by 10% during 2015-2016, to a total of 5 billion euros.
A far greater disappointment has been Syriza’s foreign and regional policy. Despite election promises to end military cooperation with Israel, Tsipras maintained and even expanded this cooperation. Tsipras has referred to Jerusalem as “Israel’s capital”, something not even the United States have dared to do and, needless to say, a slap in the face of millions of Greeks in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The architect of Syriza’s foreign policy, the “left nationalist” foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, is a true practitioner of Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik, constructing strategic alliances with the Israel state, the Egyptian junta and any other regional player perceived to be against Turkey, no matter how vicious and ruthless. Recently, Kotzias’s interference in the ongoing negotiations over the fate of Cyprus was dictated by a hard line devoid of any realistic proposals and guided by the above-mentioned regional vision of “containing Turkey”, thus strengthening the hand of chauvinist elements on the island.
Syriza’s record in defence and foreign policy issues should come as a warning to those who believe the Left can construct social hegemony by narrowly focusing on “austerity” and the “one percent”, while at the same time neglecting the core question of the state and its relative autonomy, particularly evident in the field of foreign relations. In fact, Syriza’s U-turns in both domestic and foreign policy are closely intertwined; by avoiding the necessary confrontation with Greek capitalism’s economic power – which flexed its muscles during the week before the referendum, as evidenced by the closure of the banks – it was only a matter of time before Syriza fully conformed to its geopolitical interests.
Maintaining police repression and scapegoating refugees
The other aspect of Syriza’s avoidance of any confrontation with the deep state consists of its attitude towards the structures of the police. These remain a conservative enclave despite declarations that they would be reformed. Xenophobic attitudes within the security apparatus remain rampant, and in far too many cases, it has been shown to be in cooperation with the far right.
While Syriza hasn’t taken action to restructure the police, it has used security forces to repress grassroots movements in support of refugees. Last July 2016, refugee families and supporters who were sleeping at Thessaloniki’s three occupied refugee shelters — Nikos, Orfanotrofeio and Hurriya — were woken up by police in riot gear. In a well-orchestrated police operation, hundreds of people were detained. Most occupants with refugee status were released, while some were transported to military-run refugee reception centers. The rest of the occupants, 74 people of more than a dozen different nationalities, were taken into police custody. Similar police raids happened the last March in Athens as well. Police raided squats in central Athens, reclaiming properties and detaining dozens of undocumented migrants. In the first raid, officers entered a building on Alkiviadou Street which has been occupied since February. They transferred 120 migrants from the premises to the Aliens Bureau on Petrou Ralli Street. Police subsequently raided a building in Zografou which has been occupied by members of anti-authoritarian groups since 2012.
The repression of solidarity movements with refugees is complemented by the harsh treatment the government afforded the refugees themselves. Despite promises to the contrary, the infamous Greek migrant detention centers still exist, while the government’s gross negligence towards the refugees’ welfare has been the main cause of deaths during heavy snowstorms last winter at refugee facilities such as the Moria “hotspot”.
Last but not least is the agreement of shame that the party signed with the Turkish state that is inscribed within the general legal framework that the European Union has adopted to handle the refugee crisis. On 18th March 2016, Greek lawmakers passed an asylum amendment bill needed for the implementation of the European Union agreement with Turkey demanding the return of refugees and migrants from Greek islands to Turkey. The deal aimed to block the arrival of further refugees and other migrants into Europe after more than one million people had crossed into the continent in 2015. What is the impact of this agreement just over a year later? As Dimitris Christopoulos, president of The International Federation for the Human Right, has recently argued in an interview:
The message which is sent by the deal is contaminating everybody. It contaminates us because we accustom ourselves to legitimizing xenophobia. It’s an inhumane message for the refugees and migrants who find themselves living in a buffer zone. It’s extremely problematic for the social cohesion of the buffer zone itself, which is Greece and Turkey. It’s damaging for Turkey because it buys European silence (for its leaders) as Turkey makes its authoritarian shift.
Syriza’s approach to the refugees is not only distant from any liberal humanitarian framework but also legitimises and corroborates the discourses and practices of the far-right on the refugee crisis.
The lessons for the Left
Syriza’s trajectory is not simply one of “capitulation to the Troika”, but the result of its problematic political approach to the capitalist state. To illustrate the ideological lineage of this paradigm is beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, two of its components can be mentioned in brief. One concerns the well-known element of a “left Europeanism”, i.e. the idea that the undemocratic institutions of the EU can somehow be reformed from the left. The other concers the related idea of the state itself as a battlefield reflecting the balance of class forces in society. There are several readings of this idea, and radical conclusions can certainly be drawn from it. However, its reading by the leadership of Syriza was obviously guided by a miscalculation of the political balance of class forces, not just within Greek society but within post-2008 Europe as well.
The unfavorable balance of forces in the continent became evident since Syriza assumed office in January 2015. While it is certainly true that the government was faced with an unprecedented attack by global capitalism’s main instruments, such as the European institutions and the IMF, its rightward shift on many issues – foreign policy, the state’s repressive apparatus, the state’s relations with the Church, and the refugee question – was not conditioned by the Troika but by its adaption to the structures of Greek capitalism with all their “special characteristics”, the “national disputes” with the Turkish ruling class, the clientelist nature of Greek electoralist politics, the discourse of “national reconciliation” prevalent after the fall of the dictatorship, and the structural racism of the state towards immigrants and refugees to name just a few.
Syriza’s shift to the right on several issues was becoming increasingly evident after 2012. While it is tempting to speak of “betrayal”, the truth is much more complicated. It is more accurate to speak of a great discrepancy between the expectations and radical dispositions of millions of ordinary Greeks on the one hand, and the actual tactical and eventually strategical shifts of the party’s leadership on the other.
Syriza’s rise was the product of the highest level of social mobilization in Greece after the fall of the colonel`s dictatorship in 1974. The surge in the self-activity of the masses between 2010 and to 2015 corresponded to a surge in their self-confidence, something that was shown much more aptly in the run up to the referendum, when the prospect of deeper and more substantial rupture was becoming more visible by the hour. However, the structural limitations of Syriza as a political project as well as real-existing parliamentary party, eventually stood in the way of any meaningful change.
It can be argued that the closest convergence between the expectations of the movements on the one hand, and the realm of party strategy on the other, was reflected in the 2012 slogan of a “government of the Left”, comprised of Syriza, the Communist Party and the radical left coalition ANTARSYA. However, the rejection of Syriza’s proposal by the other two forces accelerated a shift to the right, as well as incorporation of the worst clientelist habits of Greek electoralism, exemplified by including disgraced PASOK career politicians on electoral lists. The new line of thinking was made easier by the lack of inner-party democracy, the fixation with the role of Alexis Tsipras as a model “populist” leader incorporating the people’s will, and the ensuing outmaneuvering and isolation of the radical Left within the party. The coalition with the “Independent Greeks” as well the signing of the 20th February agreement by Yiannis Varoufakis were the almost logical consequence of this course, whose key message was the Syriza would not upset the general “rules of the game”.
Considering these developments, it is worth asking how Syriza remains a relevant player in the country’s political system. The first explanation is a structural one and should be read in conjunction with the reconfiguration of the Greek political system as such. The loss of sovereignty entailed by the memoranda has neutralized the role of political parties in Greece, rendering them organizations that implement decisions made by others. This has produced disengagement of people from politics, since their vote has no impact on policymaking. New Democracy can offer no real alternative, since policy is dictated by the agreements already signed. The same goes for any other party with a prospect of governing.
There is also a subjective factor. This refers to a form of internal hegemony that Syriza has built by energetically embracing the country’s political and social status quo, with minor concessions to the working class. With its current strategy, Syriza has ensured a hegemonic order which enables its political reproduction. It can be summed up by the following realities: a) staying within the eurozone and the EU in general, thus ensuring the key interests of Greek capital; b) keeping an effective balance between the American (geopolitical), European (debt and refugees) and Chinese (privatization projects like the port of Piraeus) interests within the wider Mediterranean region; c) clientelism in the public sector by not firing personnel (like New Democracy have promised to do), even if the implemented policies reduce the incomes of public sector workers; d) tackling poverty by providing for the lowest strata of society through measures that prevent their descent into absolute destitution. In other words, Syriza has survived so far by either embracing or modifying the status quo.
Syriza’s attempt to build bridges with the existing status quo and with the networks power in Greece, via some specific figures within the leading group around Tspiras, like Giannis Dragasakis and Nikos Pappas, combined with its movemenist base and anti-austerity activists in its ranks, gave the party a contradictory content in the period between 2012 and 2015. After the agreement of July 15, the second dialectical component was eliminated; or in other words: the bonds between the party and the society were completely dissolved and the pressure both from inside the party and the society stopped to exist. Syriza without a solid program of reforms was absorbed by the existing status quo. Thus the crucial factor, beyond the most obvious of austerity dictated by the signed memorandum, is the transformation of the party into an autonomous organization from the social sphere. The causes of this adaptation should be sought to the structural disjunction of Syriza from the forces that are to be accountable for the emergence of the party.
The radical left in Greece is still experiencing the consequences of Syriza’s retreat. Its unity is the first step for any victorious strategy in the future. Despite, or because of its tragic fate, Syriza can function as an exemplary case of what should be avoided at all costs for a left project to be succesfull amidst this world of deepening capitalist crisis. It can also serve as a textbook case on the structural limitations, which any future “left-populist” formation will have to confront if it assumes the responsibility of managing the capitalist state. These limitations should not be taken lightly. Not only supranational institutions like EU must be confronted, but the internal power relations within each country as well. There is no general recipe for the left`s predicament, applicable to every country and context. Each national formation has its own specific issues that must be taken into consideration. This, of course, does not devalue the crucial role that a substantial solidarity movement extending beyond the borders of the national state can and must play. Most importantly, the left after Syriza must resist any delusions concerning the “rationality” of its opponents, as well as their “sense of fairness”. This road has been tested; there is no easy way which avoids the necessity of confronting the establishment. Manolis Anagnostakis puts it aptly in his poem, ‘Epilogue’,
“And above all, no delusions.
More or less take them as two dull
headlights in the mist
Like a bulletin to missing friends
with two words only: I live.
“For” as once my friend Titos rightly said,
“no verse today can excite the masses
no verse today can overthrow regimes”.
Disabled, show your hands. Judge so as to be judged.”
We would like to thank our comrades and colleagues – Katerina Sergidou, Andreas Karitzis, Dimosthenis Papadatos, Loukia Kotronaki, Yiannos Giannopoulos, Petros Stavrou and Richard Seymour – for their very useful comments without which this which the text would be a completely different one.