Looking ahead in Greece

January 8, 2014

Panos Petrou of the socialist group Internationalist Workers Left (DEA)--a co-founder of the Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA--looks at what the year 2014 may bring.

IT IS a tough winter once again for a large part of the population in Greece.

Most people can't afford to buy heating oil. A lot of people can't afford their electricity bills (32 percent of the population is struggling to pay, according to Eurostat), and thousands of families have had their electricity cut off because of unpaid bills (173,000 electricity cutoffs during the first half of 2013).

As a result, many people use braziers and woodstoves to warm their homes. On some cold nights, the smoke coming out of the houses fills the sky over Athens.

The use of these indoor stoves has led to tragedies, such as the death of a young girl from inhaling brazier fumes and fires in homes--further highlighting the brutality of the situation. And for everyone, according to experts, the air we breath is becoming increasingly dangerous.

This picture--of an industrialized city under 21st century capitalism, where large parts of the population stay warm using makeshift stoves--is worth a thousand words about the devastation that austerity measures are causing in Greek society.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras

2013 was another year of extreme neoliberal policies, which have accelerated the destruction caused since 2010, when the Greek government signed the first "Memorandum" with the "troika"--the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund--that imposed harsh cuts, public-sector layoffs, privatization and more in return for a bailout of the Greek financial system.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is gloating about its budget surplus achieved at the end of last year. But the social cost has been huge.

The National Organization for Health Care Provision, which provides essential health services at a local level, is facing a "reform" measure that will effectively destroy it. Funding for public hospitals has been reduced by 21 percent from the already low level it was at in 2012, and starting this year, patients will need to pay a fee of 25 euros for hospitalization.

State funding for the public pension system has been reduced by 22 percent--at a time when unemployment, evasion by employers and years of gambling with the reserves had already reduced funds in the system to the point of collapse. This has opened the way for neoliberalism to achieve the dream of the "Pinochet system"--full-scale privatization of the state retirement system.

A wave of layoffs threatens to leave universities without essential administrative staff. The schools were already having a tough time after thousands of teachers were laid off.

Meanwhile, a new wave of taxes on property--designed to preserve the government surplus--is mostly hitting the middle class and sections of the working class that managed to buy a home or property over the years.

The official unemployment rate remains at 27 percent--for youth, the figure goes up to 57 percent. Of the nearly 1.4 million people unemployed as of the end of 2013, 71 percent are long-term unemployed--they have been looking for a job for more than a year with no success. Some 23 percent are "new unemployed"--meaning they have reached working age, but have never held a job.

Greece now has the smallest percentage of public employees in working-age population of all the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In the private sector, there are also 1.4 million employees, meaning that for every private-sector worker, there is one person who is unemployed.

This situation helps the capitalists to impose extreme competition. Some 20 percent of workers earn 500 euros (around $680) a month or less, before taxes and other withholdings, while 43 percent earn 800 euros (around $1190) a month or less, before taxes and contributions. A big part of the workforce is in jobs that are officially part-time, yet it is common for them to work eight hours or more, while only being paid for four hours or less.

And to top it off, getting your lousy salary at the end of the month is becoming a "luxury"--many employers have delayed paychecks for months.

MEANWHILE, THE conservative government's "success story" of the last year is a bitter joke for the majority of the population that goes through this hardship.

It is actually a joke even in mainstream economic terms. The governmental's forecast of positive economic growth during 2014 is the same one made in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and it didn't happen in those years either. Beyond the government, financial analysts from Morgan Stanley, Moody's, the OECD and the German government all predict 2014 will be another year of recession in Greece.

Even the goal of reducing the debt to 124 percent of annual gross domestic product by 2020 is turning out to be far-fetched. According to the OECD, the public debt will be 157 percent of GDP by 2020.

Yet despite these failures, the same economic policies will continue. Not because the government is stupid, nor because it surrendered to the demands of Chancellor Angela Merkel's German government. Rather, the policies will continue because for a tiny part of the population, there really is a "success story": The bosses--at least those who survive being "collateral damage" in the war they are waging--are celebrating.

The dire situation for the working class has helped the bosses extract more and more profit. Companies listed on Greece's stock exchange recorded a 153 percent increase in profitability during the first nine months of 2013.

Greek banks--the same ones that were bailed out with state funds, and which then acquired other banks for nothing, with the support of the government--are leading the way. Other monopolies like Aegean Airlines, which absorbed its main competitor, the once-public Olympic Air, also had big profits.

While taxes are only going up on the working class and middle class, there have been new tax breaks for the shipowners, the wealthiest part of the Greek ruling class and the most notorious for not paying a cent in taxation. Despite the desperate need for tax income, the government admitted that of 6.575 offshore companies in Greece, it had investigated...34 of them!

When it comes to taxes the rich, the government has proven able to stand its ground against the troika, which for months now has insisted, in vain, that the rich should also pay something more.

THE CONTINUATION of this policy by the conservative government is provoking a political crisis.

The two major parties that used to dominate Greek politics for decades, the conservative New Democracy and the center-left PASOK, are facing a historical collapse in popularity.

PASOK, which has controlled the government for most of the time since the mid-1970s and the fall of the military dictatorship, suffered a humiliating defeat in the last national elections in 2012. It now comes in sixth place in current opinion polls, and many people wonder if it will face parliamentary extinction in the future.

But we are also witnessing a steady decline of New Democracy, which dominates the current government in the coalition with PASOK. Samaras had tried to regroup a conservative social bloc around him and rebuild support on an anti-left, anti-worker and anti-immigrant basis. He has tried to achieve this through scapegoating left-wing, working-class values, scaremonger about "worse to come" conditions, repression to crush any form of resistance.

This strategy had maintained a certain level of support--around 25 percent--for New Democracy, but it not galvanized broader support beyond the party's traditional base of conservative voters. And lately, even this conservative base appears to be losing confidence in New Democracy.

One reason is objective: the continuation of austerity policies, the failure to stabilize the economy and reverse negative economic growth and increased taxes falling on the middle class are alienating even these base voters from the ruling party.

The second reason is the result of class struggle in Greece: Samaras has failed to impose crushing defeats on the resistance movement. He has failed to impose a "cemetery silence" on Greek society, which was a necessary precondition for the success of his strategy.

There have very few high-profile class confrontations--like the 24- and 48-hour general strikes, the major demonstrations outside the parliament, or the "movement of the squares" occupations of public spaces--for some time now. But at the same time, the resistance never stopped. From the strike of teachers in September, to the weeks-long walkout of university administrative staff later in the autumn, to the strong strike of doctors working in the EOPYY in December, there seems to always be important labor action against austerity policies and the government.

THIS IS the background to the latest electoral trends. After months of opinion polls ahead of the next election showing a neck-and-neck battle between New Democracy and SYRIZA, now, now the Coalition of the Radical Left has taken the lead in every poll--and it is even further ahead when people are asked the question: "Who do you think will win the next election?"

On one level, the lack of big resistance movements has increased electoral illusions among a part of the population--these people place their hopes in the next election and the possibility of a SYRIZA victory.

But at the same time, the continuation and strength of the various sectoral strikes has helped to keep this "electoral" trend on a left-wing course. Support for SYRIZA has not turned into a choice made out of despair. It retains the dynamics of hope and expectation that a popular mandate for SYRIZA can reverse austerity.

In this situation, the ruling class recognizes that SYRIZA claiming governmental power is a serious possibility. And it responded with the time-honored tactic of the carrot and the stick.

The "stick" is obvious. There has been an ideological assault on the left reminiscent of the Cold War, which is designed to play on the fears of the conservative part of the population. SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras is presented as a direct descendent of Joseph Stalin--but even worse is directed at the left wing of SYRIZA--the dangerous "hyenas hiding behind Tsipras," as the left is known.

We have been familiar with this approach since the pre-election period in 2012. If it proves anything, it is the fear of the ruling class--their fear of the political and social forces that have made SYRIZA a viable contender for governmental power. SYRIZA voters, the resistance movement, the party's rank and file, its more radical left cadres--these are the "hyenas" that make the ruling class anxious about a SYRIZA victory.

What is new, and potentially more dangerous, is the "carrot" approach, which is developing rapidly as the next election--still unscheduled, but coming sometime in the next three years--draws nearer.

There has been a barrage of articles in mainstream newspapers flirting with the possibility of a "moderate and realistic" SYRIZA government--and even trying to dictate its direction, through "friendly suggestions" to the SYRIZA leadership about dealing with the party's radical left if it wants to rule the government.

As SYRIZA takes the lead in opinion polls, but in the absence of mass struggles that dominate Greek politics, there is a pressure to become a broad "catch-all" party to achieve an election victory. This pressure is reflected in the moderation of speeches from some of the party's leading figures.

For now, the pressure to moderate SYRIZA's platform is coming mostly around the issue of Europe, and specifically around the campaign of the Party of the European Left--a coalition of parties from across Europe, ranging from radical to center-left--in elections for European parliament to be held later this year. At the European Left's congress in December, Tsipras was proposed as its candidate for president of the European Commission.

We in the left wing of SYRIZA argued that this relationship would serve to transmit the politics of the Party of the European Left into SYRIZA, not the other way around.

For many reasons--most importantly, the higher level of struggle in Greece over the past several years--SYRIZA's positions and policies are far more radical than those of its allies in the European Left. For example, SYRIZA is explicitly committed to reversing austerity by any means, and it had broken clearly with center-left strategies and alliances with center-left parties. This is not the case for all the parties of the European Left--the French Communist Party, a major force in the Party of the European Left, is an example.

Tsipras' speech at the European Left's congress in Madrid last month was indicative of the danger of adjusting SYRIZA's radical political line toward the more moderate one of the European Left--which, on the whole, is a minimal and partial critic of the EU, with a Keynesian approach to issues like the public debt, bank nationalization or taxing capital, exemplified by the idea of a "European New Deal."

This development regarding the European elections and its implications for SYRIZA's policies was something the party's Left Platform confronted at the last session of the SYRIZA Central Committee. The Left Platform voted against the majority decision and presented its own alternative document.

IN THE coming months, there will be more questions that will be crucial for the future of SYRIZA: local elections (whether to make alliances, what program to highlight), our attitude in struggles (actively organizing the resistance rather than simply "declaring our support" while waiting for Samaras' electoral defeat), our clear commitment to SYRIZA's original anti-austerity program as the possibility of taking governmental power comes closer) and the functioning of the party (implementing the SYRIZA congress' decision to organize Popular Committees of Resistance).

Unfortunately, this struggle for the future of SYRIZA has been left on the shoulders of the Left Platform and the party's left wing in general, since other forces of the Greek left have continued on a sectarian course.

The Communist Party (KKE) continues to attack SYRIZA relentlessly. Hiding behind the claim that we already know what the right wing's program is about, the KKE sometimes spends more time attacking SYRIZA than the Samaras government!

Behind the KKE's repeated pronouncements that only socialism will solve the problems of the working class is a deeply passive and conservative attitude. The logic of this attitude is that nothing can be done "until the conditions are ripe." This conservative line seems now to have been applied to the practical activity of KKE--in the case of the strikes by teachers and university administrative staffs, the KKE's trade union forces played a negative role in ending the actions.

Meanwhile, the anti-capitalist coalition ANTARSYA has also refused alliances with SYRIZA. Previously, criticisms from many ANTARSYA comrades were always more comradely than from the KKE, and ANTARSYA activists were always more willing to engage in united action in local or union struggles. Sadly, there now seems to be a new tendency to withdraw from even this unity at the local or union level.

Some ANTARSYA comrades seem to have concluded that the capitulation of SYRIZA is only a matter of time, so instead of fighting to prevent this from happening, they wait on the sidelines, warning that SYRIZA will betray the working class.

2014 will be a crucial year, full of potential for the Greek left. But it will also be a year full of responsibilities. Much needs to be done. The tendency toward moderation and "realism" must be defeated inside SYRIZA. The tendency toward sectarian passivity must be defeated in left outside SYRIZA. Unity in action and radicalism can provide the working class and left in Greece with the principles needed in a new wave of confrontations.

Greece remains the weak link in the European "chain." If it breaks, this will send shock waves across Europe. But the duties of confronting the EU and waging a successful struggle against the capitalist offensive cannot be fully accomplished in one country alone. The struggle can begin in Greece, which is on the frontlines--but it will take an international mobilization of the working class and the left to open the way for a working class victory and the radical transformation of society towards socialism.

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