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What can the Canadian left learn from the Greek crisis?

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The crisis in Greece has dominated headlines in recent weeks. While there has been much debate and discussion about what is happening and what is to be done in Greece (and how to act in solidarity) we ask what lessons can we draw from this here in Canada?

In January, the leftist Syriza party won elections and formed a coalition government with the rightwing ANEL party on a mandate to end austerity. This was rightly celebrated by the left across the world as a big step forward in the fight against austerity and neoliberalism. 

Greece is facing a major debt crisis caused by past corrupt regimes and the 2008 economic meltdown. The two previous Greek governments attempted to resolve the crisis by taking European loans to bailout the economy and implementing the harsh austerity measures that came with them. Both major ruling parties were thrown out of power one after the other for trying to impose this austerity.

When Syriza went to negotiate with the Troika (the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission), they didn't budge -- more austerity and no writing off the debt. In a stunning gamble to get a better deal, Syriza called a referendum on the Troika's new austerity-laden bailout package on July 5. With the government in default and the banks closed, the Greek people voted 61 per cent against the austerity deal. The victory, fuelled by a massive grassroots campaign, was a defiant rejection of the austerity agenda and to the global campaign of fear from politicians, businesses and the corporate media. 

Within days of the referendum, Syriza's leadership had gone another direction agreeing to an even harsher deal (the third memorandum). The deal will, among other things, rewrite labour laws, rollback previous reforms, increase sales tax, continue the hefty pension cuts and privatize 50 billion euros worth of government assets. This was a major defeat for the government and Greece. Even Tsipras himself in the parliamentary debates acknowledged this was a bad deal. It is now clear that a strategy of staying in the European monetary union for smaller countries like Greece is completely incompatible with fighting austerity

There has been visible and vocal dissent within and outside the party. Thirty-nine Syriza MPs have voted against this deal or abstained from it. The ministers who did not back the deal were replaced. On the streets there were protests against the deal as soon as it was announced. ADEDY, a public sector union, called for a 24-hour general strike the day the deal was voted on in parliament. As the government is forced to carry out these austerity measures, which will surely worsen the economic situation in Greece, there is likely to be even more widespread resistance by the working class.

The situation in Greece is too fluid to predict what will happen in the coming days and months. The strategic debates about what Syriza should have done and what they and the broader left should do now will continue to be pervasive within Greece and on the international left. 

While much of these debates are interesting and informative, for those of us on the left in Canada, the specifics cannot be translated directly to our situation. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important lessons for us.

The Crisis in Canada 

After the Great Recession of 2008-9, Canada's economy did not collapse into a prolonged, devastating depression like Greece. However, Canada has experienced marginal growth outside the oil boom, with low workforce participation and stagnant wages. And since late last year, the oil boom has collapsed and, with the manufacturing sector in a long-term decline, Canada has slipped into another recession. 

The major political outcome of the 2008-9 recession was not a step forward for the left, but a gain in political momentum by the right. We have reinvigorated and more aggressive austerity governments in power across the country. And while the NDP successes in the 2011 federal election and in Alberta are stunning and historic, they have been accompanied by a long list of major NDP electoral defeats and shameful right-wing turns such as the 2014 Ontario NDP election platform and the New Brunswick NDP's neo-colonial, pro-fracking position during the Elsipogtog blockade.

From a Canadian perspective, the election of Syriza in Greece is like a party to the left of the NDP winning the federal election. The closest Syriza equivalent we have is Quebec solidaire. PASOK, the NDP's equivalent in Greece, was one of the two major parties who embraced austerity-laden debt restructuring and has been decimated as a result. But even as Syriza is proving, electing a strong leftist anti-austerity party has its limits. 

What we can learn from the Greek political crisis

1. A party program is necessary but is no guarantee. When Syriza was elected much of the hope about the possibilities in Greece was centred on their party platform. In 2012 Syriza had a 40-point program. It was quite radical and clear. Nationalize the banks, withdraw from NATO, massive tax increases on the wealthy, immediately withdraw from the EU imposed bailout memorandum, etc. As it moved closer to power it consolidated itself into a singular party, replacing its looser electoral coalition structure, while also watering down its party program. By 2014 it adopted the Thessaloniki Program, a much milder version of their original platform. Since being elected they have only been able to implement a fraction of this new platform -- and the new memorandum means in reality next to nothing from the Thessaloniki Program will be enacted. 

Any casual observer can see at least some parallels between this narrative and the NDP. At party conventions fairly progressive policies get passed, but are often dispensed with or ignored by the party leadership when presenting campaign platforms, and especially when in power or opposition. Programs and platforms are useful instruments to clarify political positions, signal political direction and communicate clearly with those outside the party. However, they are too often discarded when parties are confronted with the realities of power. 

2. A program needs a strategy. It is not enough to craft out political positions if there is no concurrent formulation about how to enact them. This means grounding a program in the concrete realities of class struggle. If you want to implement a green infrastructure program under state direction, for instance, than that means coming up with not only a technical plan to do so, but also figuring out a plan to win popular support for this position at the base, in the workplace, streets and communities. A program without a strategy to implement it is meaningless. Any strategy that remains only technical and not political (winning people over to the idea) is no strategy at all. 

3. A strategy requires an unvarnished assessment of the balance of class forces in society. Where are the unions, social movements, the ruling class, the youth movement, the political parties, etc.? What are the internal dynamics within all of these forces, how have they mobilized, what have been the results? Any political strategy must flow from an assessment of the balance of class forces in society. This assessment must be constantly revisited as the situation changes.

For instance, a demand to nationalize the banks in Canada is not a demand that is rooted in a reasonable assessment of the current balance of social forces. Who is to nationalize it, the NDP? No unions are calling for this, and social movements have not put this demand at the forefront of their struggles. So is it a demand to mobilize around in the given context for the left? Probably not.  A radical demand like this, even with support in opinion polls, is not going to automatically build an active base of support. Doing this requires winning people over through sustained activism on the ground.

4. Program, strategy, assessment, all flow from a theory of social change. How do we change the balance of class forces in society? Is it a matter of coming up with the right ideas, formulating the correct technical measures and then winning an election and implementing them? The problem with this perspective is that it ignores the potential power of working-class people. Programs and strategies require people to actually carry them through. This means winning people to ideas not just in abstract debates, but through struggle. Only by participating positively in social movements and being involved in working class organizations like unions can people develop the confidence, capacity and perspectives that can bring about a change in the political landscape. It is not by chance that politicians and pundits are debating a $15 minimum wage. They are doing so because years of grassroots struggle has put this idea on the mainstream political map.

In Greece it is argued that because the Greek people overwhelming want to keep the Euro currency, it makes it impossible to leave the monetary union. If Syriza would simply decree this from above, we agree, it would be a disaster. But using the polls like this to argue about which correct policy to implement from above should not be the method of the left. While Greeks are still in favour of keeping the Euro, this is a position with growing contradictions, as expressed by the overwhelming OXI vote. The point is to find a strategy that can win people to this position through on-the-ground struggle and clear arguments. 

To abdicate leadership on a particular issue in favour of following polls has been used time and again by the NDP, and other mainstream parties in Canada, when in power. If we forget that change doesn't come from above, we will inevitably substitute parliamentary maneuvers and polling data for politics.

5. Winning government is not the same as winning state power. While Syriza won the election in January it has far from conquered power within the Greek state.

Syriza has been subjected to an unrelenting attack by the Greek and international media. The right wing is still very much alive and supported by powerful international forces. The media, the commanding heights of the economy, and the international financial markets are powerful weapons that can and will be used against any parliamentary attack on capitalism and the ruling class by Syriza. The Greek police and army are also not under parliamentary control, and Greece has a recent history of military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974. The left needs to account for these factors when debating the road ahead.

The NDP has faced similar sorts of attacks from the media, business class, and international financial institutions. Caught between the global recession of the early 1990s and federal cuts to social program transfers, the Ontario NDP faced a similar multi-pronged onslaught. Unions didn't spearhead a grassroots protest and strike movement against the NDP in 1993 when the party imposed the Social Contract and austerity measures in education, healthcare, and a crackdown on "welfare cheats." The result was disaster for labour and the social movements who then had to face Harris with no credible electoral alternative. This takes us back to the necessity of having struggle on the ground being the essential starting point for social change, otherwise we are relying on change from above.

The 2015 election and beyond

We can and probably will continue to debate the situation in Greece, but we should try to also look at how we approach the 2015 election and what we do if the NDP actually wins. As individuals we will not be sitting in parliament, or act as unelected policy consultants and strategists for the cabinet. We will be going about our daily lives as usual and for us the questions become how can we build movements that can shift governments and hold governments to account from the starting point of our workplaces, homes, and schools. How can we ensure that principles, issues and policies -- not parties or leaders -- have a living, breathing base of support capable of defending what we have and pushing forward with what we need?

The left, unions, and social movements should keep pushing their agenda even if the NDP is elected. An electoral party should serve the people and movements that elect it, not the other way around. 

 

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