Unraveling the Greek crisis

July 11, 2015

Very helpful analysis of the latest developments in Greece from Red Flag, newspaper of Socialist Alternative in Australia. --PG

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Ruptures in Syriza, Greece and Europe
Red Flag

12 July 2015 | Colleen Bolger

In the early hours of Friday morning, the prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, won the consent of the Hellenic Parliament to pay off the blackmailers.

He gave up the pensioners. He gave up the public servants still with jobs. He gave up the people who will not be able to afford food and coffee when the VAT is increased to 23 percent. He has given in and when he did, he gave up 61 percent of the population who resoundingly voted no to austerity in the 5 July referendum to an agreement that arguably is better than what he has proposed this weekend.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker were livid after the no vote. They moved to tighten the strangulation of the Greek banking system and threaten Grexit – to punish the Greek people and to increase the pressure on Tsipras to buckle. It has worked.

However, it is not clear that the European establishment will accept a Greek surrender. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has called for a “time out”, a temporary Grexit.

In a speech to parliament on Friday night, Tsipras argued that his proposal delivered on his mandate to make an agreement to stay in the euro currency zone. “I never asked the public for a no vote to mean a Grexit or rupture”, he said. However, for millions of people, “no” was a vote against austerity. A majority clearly do want to stay with the euro. But the question is at what cost?

The fear of Grexit is real. If it transpires, the banking crisis will come to a head quickly and cripple the everyday functioning of society. There is an alternative, articulated by the Left Platform of Syriza and the far left outside of the party. Measures such as nationalising the banks and taking control of key industries could ensure stability and that immediate human need is met. However, no preparations have been made to this end. Tsipras’s insistence for the last five months that it is not an option has contributed to the fear, which is well founded, that Grexit would bring chaos. It also means that a Grexit would be more chaotic than would otherwise have been the case.

Just as class polarisation underpinned the polarisation between the yes and no votes last week, there is a second distillation along class lines within the no vote. When I asked people on Friday what they thought of Tsipras’s proposed agreement, they shook their heads, grim and bewildered.

The woman who makes me a different kind of coffee every morning had wondered the day before why the Europeans were leaving Greece to rot, refusing to agree to debt relief. On Friday morning, I suggested that they might because Tsipras had agreed to the terms that they demanded. She was not relieved, but embittered. If the VAT rises, she said, all the shops still open in her street would close. “We work 12 to 14 hours a day. How can they ask us for more?”

In Chalandri, an area described by a comrade as “the new Manhattan” (borne out, it seemed to me, by the young affluent people in the bar at which I ate lunch), interviewing people on the street near a bank, I encountered uncertainty about what was the worst option. A few had voted yes, and they thought Tsipras had failed because he could have made a better agreement if he had surrendered back in March. They will start to feel more confident out of this. Among those who voted no, there was a bitterness that whatever happened, life would be a struggle and the system is rigged for the rich.

I returned to Keratsini, a working class area near the port. I had been here at one of the polling booths last Sunday. In this area, more than 70 percent voted no. There was resoluteness in people’s responses that I had not come across elsewhere. A young delivery driver, hanging out with some mates at the coffee franchise, forcefully tells me that it is better to leave Europe than live under the conditions being demanded. He is no economist he says, and he had said his mates weren’t political. But as we’re talking, one of his “apolitical” mates said that we need a revolution.

Panos, who works in the shipping industry, says Tsipras’s proposal “is to turn a something into a nothing. I don’t know what it is – capitalism, they …”, he trails off. It’s something I hear a lot from people who know the crisis was the making of the corrupt old parties and the creditor troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Panos considers himself lucky because he has a job, even though it pays half what it used to. Nevertheless, it is a struggle for his children. It is another scorching summer day. He is on an enforced holiday because his employer has said that the company can’t pay people for July. He tells me that before all of this he would be at the beach, drinking with mates and relaxing. But that is unthinkable now – not because it is particularly costly, but because no one lives like that when they are anxious about their future.

The strong sentiment here is an echo of the tremendous defiance of the people who voted no last weekend. We will never know precisely what portion of the no vote are like the working class people I spoke with in Keratsini. But we can say that when people stood up to the enormous intimidation of the media, their bosses and the troika last week, they showed tremendous resolve.

Tsipras and the vast majority of Syriza MPs have not shown the same courage. It is much more disorienting for the people who voted no to be betrayed in the night by their own generals than to be defeated fighting the enemy. There is no excuse worthy of the working class people who showed such defiance on Sunday.

However, sentiment can dissipate quickly if it is not harnessed into organisation. People disoriented by their no being turned into a yes need to hear that there are others like them who do not want another agreement. If there is no big expression of opposition, they likely will feel alone and abandoned.

In the coming days, people will look for the opposition within the left of Syriza. Stavroulla is a member of Syriza in Keratsini. She is “shocked” and “very bitter” about the proposal. “I think this is a big mistake. There are other ways and Syriza cannot agree that there’s only one alternative.” With tears in her eyes she says, “This goes against people’s vote”.

If the leftists within Syriza stick by the “red lines” that the party promised not to cross, they can show that people’s resistance last week and in the general strikes and battles with riot police over the last years do not amount to nothing. That will be the basis to reconstitute a left that fights the implementation of austerity.

The two MPs, Ioanna Gaitani and Elena Psarea, from the Red Network, which is grouped around the revolutionaries in the Internationalist Workers Left, voted no in the parliamentary debate on Friday night. That was a clear stand on a fundamental question: yes or no to more austerity. According to Syriza central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis:

“Seven MPs of the Left Platform abstained, including its two most prominent ministers (Panagiotis Lafazanis and Dimitris Stratoulis) … Among them Marxist economist Costas Lapavitsas and Stathis Leoutsakos, member of the political secretariat of Syriza. The four ministers will resign in the next few days.

“Fifteen other MPs of the Left Platform … issued a statement explaining they will vote yes in order not to deprive the government of its majority at that stage, reject the proposed agreement as yet another austerity package and warn that they will not vote any signed agreement that includes austerity when it comes to parliament.”

These numbers are disappointing because it is not the strongest base from which to organise opposition. But the debate is just beginning.

There is much speculation that, because Tsipras was forced to rely on opposition votes for support, the government has been destabilised. This has been used by Tsipras increase pressure on the left in Syriza to not break ranks. It had the desired effect on Friday night. However, it will make things difficult for him as the individual laws for pension reforms, public service cuts and the other austerity measures come before the parliament. It has also established that there is a minority opposition around which rank and file members of Syriza can coalesce.

The editorial in Saturday’s edition of Avgi, the party paper, calls for a new election to be held soon. This would allow Tsipras to increase his majority and would discipline those MPs who abstained.

Elections would force a debate in the party, which would be expressed in the district nominations and potential disendorsement of MPs who refuse to hand out official party propaganda pushing the Tsipras line. It would be the most intensely politicised election held since the beginning of the crisis, coming on the back of the huge social mobilisation for the no vote and at a crossroad for Syriza itself.

Alternatively, the German hardliners will win the day and push through some sort of temporary exit. In such circumstances, the demands the left have articulated with more force over the last few weeks – for bank nationalisation and other measures to prevent shortages – will be prescient. Tsipras may be forced to carry out the left’s proposals to address the social crisis.

One sign of the volatility: a group of men in their 30s or 40s – a truckie, a muso, a security guard and a waiter – drinking wine guffaw that last week they were supporting Tsipras and now they’re supporting Schäuble. They want the drachma back. More seriously, they say Tsipras has been a disappointment to the 61 percent who voted, they thought, against another memorandum.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the next 48 hours, but the last 48 hours has posed a new set of tasks for the left. People who voted against austerity have watched as their victory has been turned into its opposite. Tsipras has used his prestige to force through another agreement.

Building opposition to the passage of a new memorandum is urgent. If a clear stand is not taken by the left, all will be lost in the din. Right now, people are straining to hear that an alternative is still possible.

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