Letter From Athens

Letter From Athens

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras speaking in Italy, May 2014 (Lorenzo Gaudenzi / Flickr)

The hopes and fears of leftists around the world following Syriza’s dizzying victory last week can best be summed up by a famous scene on the TV show Saved by the Bell where the episode’s heroine, Jesse Spano, takes too many caffeine pills: “I’m so excited… I’m so excited… I’m so scared!” In other words, the stakes are huge.

Syriza has promised a set of sweeping reforms, some specific—rehiring thousands of public-sector workers, for instance—others almost idealistic in nature, such as a European New Deal. If they achieve half of them, it will be nothing short of a miracle. It’s enough to make anyone dream.

So far, there are reasons to believe they will at least put up a good fight: Tsipras has blocked the sale of a Greek port to a Chinese company, and has made moves to prevent further privatization of state assets from taking place. His finance minister is the opposite of reticent. The markets have already tanked.

But, to use a (flawed) analogy: will Syriza’s dashing young leader, Alexis Tsipras, end up something like Europe’s Obama? Will his “hopey changey thing,” as Sarah Palin put it, end up a bust?

I traveled to Athens on the evening after the election results came in. By the time I arrived, the stimulant effects of the victory had started to give way to a shaky afterglow (and hangovers for all). Friends and acquaintances who’d attended celebrations the night before spoke of disbelieving Syriza party members wondering out loud how they would staff, let alone govern, a party whose popularity had snowballed in a short month, putting on its youthful shoulders not just a nation’s economic and political fate but also the prospects of the European continent and the credibility of an entire left-leaning movement that emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

It’s not hard to understand their anxiety. If Syriza screws up—certainly, they wouldn’t be the first political party with grand plans and appealing ideas to do so—the credibility of like-minded parties throughout Europe could take a severe beating. If a Tsipras cabinet either fails to chip away at, or gets entangled in, Greece’s entrenched corruption, the disappointment will be felt for decades, and not just in Greece. Given the stakes, and a common contempt for the actions of the Troika, you can’t blame the European extreme right for cynically welcoming the victory, as France’s Marine le Pen did. A pair of rather right-wing French gentlemen I spoke to the previous week in Paris were on Team Alexis, too, playing the long game: “Let them win, let them self-destruct, and we’ll be done with their Occupy nonsense until the day we die,” they said.

It’s tempting to get caught up in existential angst about what a Syriza-led Greece will mean for the capital-L Left in the coming decades. The concerns of the young Greeks I spoke to during my brief trip were much more immediate, and understandably so. Though Athens is not lacking in joie de vivre, the situation feels palpably desperate. Young people in varying states of employment and financial security speak of life in their city in terms of before and after austerity, of “thens”—that is, five years ago—and “nows”—the nows of poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness. The people I spoke to don’t seem to expect miracles so much as a break with the recent past.

And so the oft-repeated cliché about Syriza representing a statement more than an agenda seemed to me to be accurate. Theodora Oikonomides sums it up in an article explaining Syriza’s seemingly strange alliance with the right-wing conspiracy theorists of the Independent Greeks party: “The vast majority of SYRIZA’s electorate don’t care: they did not vote for SYRIZA because SYRIZA is left-wing, they voted for the ‘new guys’, they voted for change. Whatever change. And we should consider ourselves lucky that, until now, the vast majority of voters chose SYRIZA as the heralds of change rather than Golden Dawn.”

Committed Syriza supporters, so far, nevertheless seem committed to pulling Europe to the left, whether that’s what a third of Greeks voted them in for or not. The results so far have been subtle, but significant: the very vocabulary with which mainstream politicians can now publicly speak of the crisis is in flux. One Marxist feminist I spoke to, who supported Syriza (even though she describes Tsipras as a man with fundamentally bourgeois middle-class personal ambitions), put it nicely:

“Syriza isn’t an anti-austerity party. It’s an anti-capitalist party. And the symbolism of the party using words like ‘regulation’ to refer to neoliberal policies—the fact that they won’t say things like ‘liberalizing’—is huge.”

Will Syriza storming the Troika finally put an end to the marketspeak that’s taken over the political discourse? That alone would mark a significant cultural shift, a massive public service.

“We are teeny weeny,” she went on. “There’s only so much we can do. So we’re lighting a fire with the right matches.”

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a member of the Dissent editorial board and an editor at Al Jazeera America and the New Inquiry.