Greek crisis: austerity, revolt and illusions

August 30, 2015

From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters

Greek voters overwhelmingly rejected a new austerity package in a July 5 referendum called by the Syriza government. After campaigning for a No vote, Syriza quickly turned No into Yes by agreeing to conditions very similar to those the voters rejected.

What the vote showed above all was that the Greek masses reject the austerity program imposed on them by the European Union, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the IMF, in collusion with previous Greek governments, both conservative and social democratic. Over 60% voted no, even after a pro-austerity propaganda campaign by the mass media and heavy economic pressure placed on the people. By capping loans to Greek banks, the ECB forced capital controls and bank closings ahead of the vote, making life even more difficult for the working class and the middle class.

The country’s forces of revolt have erupted again and again in recent years, as the economy melted down and austerity was imposed. Huge, militant demonstrations in Athens both before and after the No vote were only the latest manifestation. The 2011 strikes and occupations were among the most militant in the world. The occupation of Syntagma Square in Athens was one of the links between the Arab Spring revolutions and Occupy Wall Street.


Popular assembly in Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece, May 5, 2012. Photo by Adolfo Indignado Cuartero,

Popular assembly in Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece, May 5, 2012. Photo by Adolfo Indignado Cuartero,

Over the last five years, a confrontation has unfolded between the forces of revolt in Greece—workers, youth, immigrants, women—and the ruling classes of Europe through its continental institutions, backed up by global institutions and investors.

Until this year, Greek governments stayed on the side of the institutions. But one of the results of the masses’ opposition to austerity was that they broke down the two-party system and swept the previously marginalized Syriza, whose name literally includes the phrase “radical left,” into power this year. Syriza, however, despite its heated confrontations with the institutions, is not the masses. Rather, it is between these two great forces, feeling pressure from both sides, which explains why Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras caved in to the creditors’ most egregious demands.

That reverses most of what Syriza ran on. The moratorium on home foreclosures ends. Prices of food and transport rise, as do social insurance contributions and taxes on the poor. The minimum wage, pensions and state spending are to be cut. “Reforms” will reduce workers’ protections and grant market advantages to European multinationals, which will decimate small and medium businesses. European institutions will oversee sweeping privatization of public assets.

Two previous “reform” packages reduced Greece’s fiscal deficit, but led to a protracted depression. Unemployment is 27% and for youth is more than 50%. Real incomes and pensions are down by 40%. The GDP has fallen by a quarter. Public sector jobs have been slashed, and the average retirement age has soared.


The suffering of refugees on the island of Kos—many fleeing the genocidal Assad regime and Islamic State in Syria—may presage the future of the Greek working class. About 1,000 refugees were locked into a stadium overnight with little water and no food. Reinforced by 200 riot police from Athens, cops assaulted adults and children, while local authorities deliberately kept conditions difficult to discourage future migrants.

The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is exploiting anti-immigrant fears in this land of high joblessness and pretending to be the real opponent of European overlords, now that Syriza has transformed into the enforcer of austerity rather than its enemy. In reality, Golden Dawn has infiltrated the police and attacked, even killed, immigrants, workers and leftists.

The past five years’ bailouts, far from helping the Greek masses, mainly transferred the debt owed to international banks, hedge funds and private investors onto the shoulders of Greek and European taxpayer-funded institutions. Nearly 90% of the new bailout is for debts, interest and support for Greek banks.

Both the IMF and the European Commission now recognize that Greece needs debt reduction. Austerity has made matters worse for the Greek economy and the masses. Yet the latest deal intensifies austerity and includes no debt reduction.

This is not, as some pundits claim, a matter of dogma. It does reflect the drive to restore profitability to capitalists—mainly in northern Europe—which is helped by driving down Greek labor costs and destroying “excess” Greek capital.

As importantly, the rulers want to quash the rebellion in Greece and prevent it from spreading. The governments whose workers have suffered most from austerity—Portugal, Spain, Ireland—are among those vociferously opposed to concessions. They don’t want to see revolt rekindled in their own countries.


Thus Germany used the negotiations to either force Syriza out of office or make them the bearers of austerity. Now a split has begun. Some in its Left believe that Syriza has been used to legitimize austerity, and that its leadership under Tsipras even intentionally took “initiatives to deactivate the dynamic that was emerging with the referendum” (see July 14 Jacobin interview with Stathis Kouvelakis). The party’s Right thirsts to purge those who voted against the new austerity package.

But Syriza’s unstable unity is the result of the common outlook of its Left, Right and Center, who all see state power as their path, even if that means taking over the management of Greek capitalism to save it.

Tsipras embodies the contradiction between simultaneously fighting austerity and saving capitalism, putting his faith in “Europe” rather than the masses. He subordinated all else to negotiations dominated by Germans asserting their hegemony in Europe. His illusions that Greece could split the “democratic” states in the EU and create a bloc to confront Germany only led to a dead end.

While a small country like Greece cannot win alone without support from the peoples of Europe, Tsipras only asked the masses in other countries to pressure their own governments. He did not seek to stimulate the independent self-organization of those masses any more than of the Greeks.

Thus international Left accusations of a “coup” carried out against Syriza evade its own self-defeating path of exalting the pursuit of state power over listening to the movement from practice and encouraging workers’ control of production and self-activity.

—Franklin Dmitryev

0 thoughts on “Greek crisis: austerity, revolt and illusions

  1. News and Letters has followed through with the Greek situation almost since its beginning. Issue after issue, we have seen an analysis of how things are evolving in Greece.

    One of the first articles that I remember was the essay “Greece: Postmodernism in Power” (but maybe there were some others before).

    We published a Spanish translation of it in the second issue of our paper Praxis in América Latina (may-june 2015). That means it was before the July referendum.

    We received some critique for publishing that article (and, “worst,” in the front page). By that time, some people were still “astonished” by how Syriza had been able to “challenge” the European powers. They also complained about how that criticized all together Althusser, Laclau, Varoufakis and others as post-Marx Marxists (in the pejorative sense Dunayevskaya gave to this concept).

    Since that essay, the position of News and Letters has been clear: Syriza is not the masses. To beat capitalism, we need a wider philosophy of liberation (much wider than that of Althusser, Laclau and company). And how things have turned out since that! (Syriza actually betraying the masses)

    Is not that N & L “predicted” what was about to come, but that it is rooted in a strong philosophy of human liberation.

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