The Syriza Problem

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras in a European Parliament session, July 8 (European Parliament)

Syriza, the populist party that has governed Greece for the last ten months, has had an extraordinary free ride from the global left. Today, there are serious left critics in Greece—and in Europe and the United States, too. But it is still rare to see the Syriza problem clearly addressed (see Leandros Fischer’s recent article in Jacobin, “From Papandreou to Tsipras,” for an excellent analysis).

Syriza came to power promising to confront the EU’s bankers and officials, to end austerity, and to transform Greece. It was an exhilarating moment, but the party had no plans for doing any of these things. Above all, it had no plan for “Grexit”—for leaving the eurozone, restoring the drachma, and reclaiming economic sovereignty. As Sarah Leonard reported in an informative interview on this website, exiting the eurozone would have required very careful planning. Most left economists around the world favored Grexit; they didn’t favor an immediate exit but they did favor preparing for an exit sometime in the future. There had to be an clear alternative to austerity, and many of them would happily have flown to Athens to help plan for it. Jamie Galbraith did fly to Athens, to join a working group at the Ministry of Finance, but no serious, systematic plan was ever worked out. So the threat to leave, which was supposed to strengthen Greece’s hand in the negotiations with its creditors, was a bluff; the creditors called the bluff, and Syriza became the party of surrender.

The hastily called referendum on austerity gave Syriza’s leaders, and many Greek voters, too, a chance to vent, to denounce neoliberalism and all its works, but the No vote was not in fact a political decision. The decision to surrender to the EU oligarchs had already been made. No doubt the oligarchs were brutal, but that’s what they always are: how else should oligarchs behave? Given their rhetoric, the leftists of Syriza should have done better.

It doesn’t seem that Syriza had any thought-through domestic plans—for dealing with rampant corruption, for confronting the Greek oligarchs, or for collecting taxes (the Syriza minister who was supposed to deal with tax evasion announced that 7 billion euros were outstanding and that collection of 2.5 billion would start right away, but not much progress has been reported since then). Syriza is in fact a typical populist party. If it had come to power in more prosperous times, it would have spent money improving the living conditions of Greece’s poorest citizens, until the money ran out, and it would have distributed civil service jobs to its followers. But from the beginning there was no money, and there were no jobs. There was nothing to do except to talk as if a great deal was going to be done. But the talk was mostly bluster, so why did it produce so much excitement on the global left?

The hard truth, I think, is that rhetorical radicalism is exciting—much more than the sobering work of planning for tough decisions. And you have to add sartorial radicalism: the prime minister and the finance minister of the Syriza government actually went to meetings with German bankers without putting on a tie! The finance minister traveled around Europe in a leather jacket! Right-wing populism usually involves uniforms and marching; left-wing populism apparently involves informal dress and talking. The left version is better, but it still only symbolizes a politics that needs to be earned.

After surrendering, Syriza called a snap election, and won—before voters could feel the full effects of the surrender. Its campaign was strongly supported by Podemos in Spain and by Die Linke in Germany, two left parties that had watched the surrender but apparently learned nothing from it. It might have been better to let right-wing parties enforce austerity, with the left in opposition, arguing for a serious alternative policy—whether Grexit or something else (for an example of something else, see Ronan Burtenshaw’s “A Greek Lesson” at Analyze Greece). Yes, Golden Dawn, a neo-fascist party, posed an electoral threat, but there was a strong center-right party, committed to neoliberalism, that would seem to be a more appropriate manager of an austerity program.

A significant group of the earliest Syriza leaders broke away and formed a coalition of the farther left, Popular Unity, which was meant to draw support away from Syriza, but failed to do so (it got less than 3 percent of the vote). Popular Unity might yet turn into a new and better Syriza, building for the future, but its election platform repeated the promises Syriza had made in its winning campaign last January, without any indication of how those promises might, this time, be fulfilled (see Robert Fidler, “Syriza’s Pyrrhic Victory and the Future of the Left in Greece,” at The Bullet; for an insightful and sympathetic discussion of the problems the Greek left faces, see Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch, “The Syriza Dilemma,” in Jacobin).

Syriza is now in charge of the austerity program, acting at the direction of the bankers and officials it once defied. It has, as I’ve said, begun to attract leftist criticism—for betraying its putative principles, but not so much (Fischer’s Jacobin article is an exception) for failing to think seriously about how to realize those principles.

There is another example of Syriza’s principles that I find illuminating—and sobering. Its January platform called for “the abolition of military cooperation with Israel”—the end, that is, of the alliance formed over the last decade in response to the transformation of Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan and his colleagues. I think that this alliance is a good thing, a useful deterrent to Turkey; it has led to coordinated military training and maneuvers but doesn’t in fact involve or contemplate the use of force. The Syriza government has actually strengthened the alliance, despite promising to end it, a welcome sign, I suppose, of pragmatism (albeit strongly condemned on sites like Middle East Monitor and Electronic Intifada). Apparently, it is not against Syriza’s principles to cooperate closely with Israel, but it is against Syriza’s principles to explain or defend the cooperation in public, in Greece. The Greek Defense Minister, at a press conference in Israel, defended the alliance, but he is a member of Syriza’s coalition partner, the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), not of Syriza itself. I have searched the web in vain for any indication that any Syriza official or party leader has defended this very big policy reversal.

But maybe it isn’t a reversal: the old rhetoric was hostile to Israel and so is the current rhetoric, so nothing has really changed. Why should a populist party bother to explain to the people what it is doing, when what’s really important is what it is saying? Popular Unity, so far, is saying the same thing: it repeats the old promise to end the alliance, proclaims the same hostility—and would probably behave in the same way. Isn’t this the kind of politics that democratic leftists should condemn? It’s very much like defying the bankers, with great bravado, and then following their instructions. In the case of Israel, the result is defensible; in the case of the bankers, not. But the gestural radicalism is the same in both cases, and that we should never defend.


Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.



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