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The triumph of Syriza and the challenge to social democracy and austerity

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"The verdict of the Greek people ends, beyond any doubt, the vicious circle of austerity in our country," Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said. "The verdict of the Greek people, your verdict, annuls today in an indisputable fashion the bailout agreements of austerity and disaster. The verdict of the Greek people renders the troika a thing of the past for our common European framework."

The triumph of the leftist, anti-austerity party Syriza in Greece, while widely anticipated, has sent shock-waves both positive and negative rippling through European politics. Syriza, should it form the government, is the most left-wing party or coalition to triumph in a European election in over 30 years. Coming as the arc of neo-liberalism and its incumbent extreme inequality and austerity may be finally entering the beginning of its death throes politically and ideologically, which was inevitable given the impossibility of its sustainability and its profound contradictions, the triumph holds out the real and hopeful prospect of the attempt at a new course in a European capitalist country.

The, as American economist Paul Krugman has termed it, "austerity delusion" had pushed Greek civil society and the Greek people to the breaking point and beyond with round-after-round of anti-democratic and extreme restructuring measures imposed on Greece by its creditors and by the true economic power holders within the European Union, the Germans. They imposed a debt and austerity regime on Greece from which it was essentially impossible to escape without the implementation of severe and brutal changes that profoundly damaged Greek society and, in fact, the Greek economy, pushing them into an austerity loop each round of which was made harsher and yet more inescapable. 

Pushing back against the austerity regime, however, within the framework of the European Union and a capitalist economy is going to be very hard. There is no doubt about this. The challenges that lie in front of Syriza are profound and can be seen from the threats and fear-mongering that occurred prior to and in the immediate wake of the election

Before the official results were even announced, there were stern warnings from Berlin that a rejection of fiscal austerity would not be tolerated by Europe’s economic powerhouse.

"I hope the new government won't call into question what is expected and what has already been achieved," said Jens Weidmann, the president of the Bundesbank.

Greece would only continue to get loans if it stayed the course on austerity and the new government should not make promises it could not fulfil, he said.

These are not empty threats. The Greeks exist within a fiscal framework and cannot simply wish it away. Even if the Greeks were to withdraw from the union and default on their debts, as some would like to see happen, this would create a whole new set of challenges given that they would not be able to get foreign loans and financing on any reasonable or meaningful level. It will be a serious challenge for Syriza, assuming it forms the government, to navigate these issues.

Having said that, however, there can be no doubt as to the importance of this victory for the left in Europe and beyond. It is a decisive and mass electoral repudiation in an economically developed European democracy of the economics of not just the last few years but of the last three decades. That matters. 

It sends a strong signal that people can only be pushed so far. That the triumphant narrative of an extremist, unregulated, "anti-government" version of capitalism in Europe after the fall of Soviet-style Communism is not necessarily as triumphant as it may have first appeared. That a European Union centred around what was best for Europe's and Germany's banks was not much of a union at all. 

Already the very similar ideological cousin, the Spanish Podemos party is feeling buoyed by this victory and the impact may ripple beyond that as Nick Squires of the UK Telegraph noted:

The head of Spain's similar anti-austerity party, Podemos, also hailed Syriza's victory.

"Hope is coming, fear is fleeing. Syriza, Podemos, we will win," said Pablo Iglesias, who last Thursday joined Mr Tsipras at Syriza's final election rally in Athens.

"In Greece tonight, we are already hearing that. We are hoping we will hear the same thing in Spain soon," he told a gathering of about 8,000 party faithful in Valencia.

"Syriza winning an outright majority is huge for Europe, an earthquake," Costas Douzinas, a political commentator and a professor of law at the University of London, told The Daily Telegraph in Athens.

"If a tiny country like Greece can stand up to the lenders and achieve even a small haircut of the debt, the message to the Spanish, Portuguese and Italians will be that they too can stand up at some point."

This all remains to be seen, of course. But what Syriza has also done is cast a spotlight on the many on the "left" both within Greece and beyond, who have been handmaidens to the austerity viciousness and who have done so in the name of being "responsible", "fiscally prudent" and any number of other catch phrases that amount to saying that they too will "play the game" as demanded by the financial markets and banks.

One need only look back, towards the beginning of Greek austerity, to the article written in 2011 by Layton and New Democrat strategist and soon-to-be leadership hopeful Brian Topp (who ultimately was supported by many as the alleged "left-wing" or "traditional" alternative to Mulcair) in, of all places, the business paper The Globe and Mail to see the farce that social democracy has all too often become. In a piece that both apologized for and even lauded the role of the Greek Socialist party in getting the austerity brutality rolling Topp, after comparing anti-capitalist victims of austerity rioting to drunken hockey hooligans,  said:

George Papandreou addressed the opening session of Socialist International in an unmistakable Canadian accent. It isn't as widely appreciated in Canada as it should be that we are the current Greek Prime Minister's second home. His family found refuge in Toronto during the former military dictatorship in Greece. His father led PASOK to victory once democracy was restored, leading the first Greek social democratic government. Prime Minister Papandreou led PASOK to a second, majority government in the most recent Greek elections.

Just in time to confront the reality of a €230-billion national debt.
He is a quietly inspiring figure, George Papandreou. In the teeth of a first-class financial, economic and politic crisis, he took his place in the chair here (Papandreou is president of Social International), and opened the meeting with a calm, thoughtful, and determined overview of what he was dealing with.

Perhaps his most important words were his final ones: "we will survive, and we will win."

It didn't really work out that way. For Greece or PASOK.  Topp goes on, in that tone of realism and smug sense of knowing how it works, to say:

the 100-plus countries represented in Socialist International, moderate, responsible, mainstream progressive parties are putting forward the sensible, realistic alternative to conservative misrule. The British Labour Party; the German SDP; the French Socialists; Australian Labor; the Scandinavian social democratic parties; the New Democrats, Canada's new official opposition; PASOK; and the many other progressive parties meeting here are broadly of like mind on these issues.

This "realistic alternative" has turned out to be not much of an alternative at all and PASOK, after helping to destroy Greece has been relegated to the dustbin of history.

In fact, rather than being "moderate, responsible, mainstream" and whatever other euphemisms that Topp and his ilk can come up with to promise, in advance of even threatening to be in power, that they will accept the economics as dictated by corporations and the banks as the only economics that are possible, in reality they are saying that they will do the bidding of global capital and the banks, and they too will be a fundamental part of and enabler of these barbaric and ugly, and very immoderate and extremist, austerity regimes with this pathetic and reactionary nonsense.

The victory of Syriza, while being clearly a victory within the specific Greek context, still stands as a challenge to this bankrupt narrative. The do-nothing social democratic politicians love to universalize their retreat as an inevitable, responsible and mature acceptance of "reality." Those of us who reject this capitulation in advance by mainstream social democrats can note that what Syriza has done does indeed set an example outside of the borders of Greece. The example that maybe we too can one day build movements and parties that will no longer collaborate with and accept the demands of capital and austerity policies. 

If the NDP and all these other "responsible" parties are "broadly of like mind on these issues" still, they had best wake up!

The times may be yet changing.

Image: wikimedia commons

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