With a last-ditch, compromise deal worked out with the European Union, the Syriza coalition government of Greece led by Alexis Tsipras has bought some time for its anti-austerity program, but still faces massive challenges. The challenges come not just from the European Union, in which Angela Merkel’s Germany has clearly shown its hand as the most powerful force in European capitalism. Syriza’s climbdown from key parts of its radical program may also test the staying power of its radical wing, especially the Left Platform, led by the economy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis, and the economist, turned MP, Costas Lapavitsas.
From Day One of the new government (26 January 2015), Syriza faced accusations from the Left that it was selling out when, just short gaining of an absolute majority in the new Parliament, it formed an alliance with the right-wing nationalists of ANEL (Independent Greeks) . But the accusations were somewhat misplaced. For although Syriza is a coalition of anti-capitalist tendencies, it was elected not to provide an alternative to capitalism, but an alternative to an EU-imposed austerity which, since the start of the Eurozone crisis in 2008, has shrunk the Greek economy by a massive 25 per cent, pushed the unemployment rate up 25 per cent, and increased the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio by 35 per cent to over 175 per cent.
Furthermore, the strength of Syriza’s position lies partly in its ongoing internationalist perspective. For as well as avoiding the road of “socialism in one country” – an historically-proven dead end – Syriza also seeks to avoid anti-austerity in one country by encouraging by example other upstart anti-austerity parties elsewhere in Europe, such as Podemos in Spain – currently claiming 28 per cent of voter support in the most recent opinion polls.
On 24 February, crisis talks with the EU-IMF-European Central Bank “institutions,” (which, as the hated “Troika” Syriza had previously refused to recognize) came to a head. At stake was an extension of the 240 billion Euro bail-out programme which was due to expire with immediate effect, leaving Greece to face insolvency and expulsion from the Eurozone single currency. The package put forward by Greece consisted of proposals to combat tax evasion and corruption, to guarantee housing and free medical care for the poor and unemployed (though without any overall increase in public spending), and to reduce the government bureaucracy. The proposed compromises have –for now – been accepted by the EU finance ministers. But they are painful and extensive, running counter to Syriza’s election mandate. They include commitment not to roll-back already introduced privatisations, to negotiate pending privatizations on a case-by-case basis, and commitment not to immediately raise the minimum wage.
The deal, held to be good for another four months, aims to save the deposits of the Greek banks. But the capitulations may have serious consequences: not only for keeping the revolutionary Left of the coalition on board, but also for pacifying the unions led by the Greek Communist Party (KKE), which stayed out of the coalition, but has enough muscle inside and outside of the Greek Parliament to seriously rock Syriza’s ship of compromise, if not actually sink it.
Since long before the election victory, Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has been clear that he sees the immediate task of the Left as “saving capitalism from itself,” or more specifically, “to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate its alternative.” Varoufakis warns that an exit of any European state from the eurozone would soon lead to a fragmentary division of European capitalism, benefitting only the racist Far Right:
“If this means that it is we, the suitably erratic Marxists, who must try to save European capitalism from itself, so be it… with Europe’s elites deep in denial and disarray, the left must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system. Our task should then be twofold. First, to put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. Second, to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilising Europe – for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, reinforces only the bigots… The trick is to avoid the revolutionary maximalism that, in the end, helps the neoliberals bypass all opposition to their self-defeating policies and to retain in our sights capitalism’s inherent failures while trying to save it, for strategic purposes, from itself.”
Varoufakis holds Marx at least partly responsible for the legacy of “Marxist economists [who] wasted long careers indulging a similar type of scholastic mechanism. Fully immersed in irrelevant debates on ‘the transformation problem’.” There is a certain truth in this, as regards the debris post-Marx Marxists have heaped on the analysis contained in all three volumes of Marx’s Capital. But Marx’s opposition to the system of value-production did indeed entail an awareness that, as Varoufakis puts it “a proper economic theory must respect the idea that the rules of the undetermined are themselves undetermined.”
For us today this means that the historic ground for working out an alternative to capitalism needs a concretization of Marx’s critique of capital in relation to the class struggles the anti-austerity movements are riding on but cannot confine to left reformism and popular frontism. In developing a real anti-capitalist anti-politics the Left in Greece, and elsewhere, still has everything to play for.