If people prevail, austerity fails: Lessons from Greece

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The Canadian connection. I find it touching that the song line starting most Syriza rallies during the Greek election was Leonard Cohen's, "First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin." I might've preferred Cohen's "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A." But Germany plays a special role; it's been the source of the most brutal pressures on Greeks in the name of economic dogma, a.k.a. austerity. It's behind the overall crash with 60 per cent youth unemployment -- and also the fact that the young haven't just given up on owning a home, they despair of ever being able to marry.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras's first act after winning the election was visiting a memorial to Greeks slaughtered during the Nazi occupation. Syriza is demanding reparations from Germany which go far beyond the debt it owes the EU. They're also reminding everyone of the fact that Germany itself was forgiven its entire debt in 1953 -- basically because it was insupportable.

Why Syriza won. The short answer is: they put people first. I know all parties say that but (a) they only say it and (b) they only say it at elections. Syriza said and did it. Because they're not just a party but a coalition of parties, groups and movements, they naturally extended into communities and helped people with real needs. This in turn proved they weren't like other parties, just in it for power. That near cliché translated into real policies.

The EU/Germany clearly put numbers (of euros owed) first, as Greece's new finance minister says. So the debate was over priorities. If people prevail, austerity fails. It turns out austerity wasn't inevitable, like a law of nature; it was a question of values.

Syriza and the NDP. Idealistic leftists everywhere always ask if they should work in the current parties (NDP, U.K. Labour, Democrats) or create a new one. The argument for leaving is: they're unreformable. The argument for staying is: it's too hard to create an institution from scratch. Apparently no longer. Syriza didn't exist 15 years ago. Six years ago they were at 4.6 per cent. Their Spanish equivalent, Podemos (means "Yes We Can") formed a year ago. It's now tied with the governing party.

Neither Syriza nor Podemos are a media creation. The mass media scorned and mocked both. They have more to do with digital media, social networks and an ability to bypass the mainstreams. They are, at their core, not bureaucratic electoral machines but coalitions, so their identity isn't solely built on winning power. They also reek of newness. They're cut from a new cloth, even in the clothes they wear (Tsipras without a tie, Spain's Iglesias in T-shirts. Now think of Tom Mulcair).

PASOK, Greece's traditional left party, was in the government that imposed austerity. It often governed in the past and has "socialist" in its very name, yet everyone there unselfconsciously says that Syriza is the first left-wing government Greece has ever had. That's pretty damning. PASOK is down to 4.7 per cent of votes.

What Syriza and Podemos proved, against all expectations (including mine), is that you can reject the dominant neoliberal consensus on austerity, balanced budgets, etc., and succeed in the tired old electoral arena. But not if you're one of the tired old parties.

Where was the coverage? I expected wall-to-wall news about Sunday's Greek election. Monday morning it was almost nowhere. We got the blizzard in the U.S. and the red carpet at the SAG awards. CBC had the usual arrests and traffic jams. Yet this was the first successful electoral challenge to 30-plus years of a dominant political mentality. And it happened, as it were, here. Such challenges have been mounted in Latin America, they've become normal there. But Greece is First World (or almost, it's also pretty Middle Eastern). I think what's lacking is the mere vocabulary to think in new, non-neoliberal terms. When you don't have the language, it doesn't really exist. Not yet anyway.

Bonus fact on austerity. When Greek dockworkers struck to protest privatization of the historic port of Piraeus, their own government, at EU urging, conscripted them into the military en masse so that they could be jailed for refusing orders to work. Still wonder why so many of them hate those bastards?

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Michalis Famelis/flickr

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