Transformation or Replication? On the Aftermath of the Greek Government Shift

March 23, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will” (A. Gramsci)

We might err, but we believe that in the night of the elections in January 2015 a symbolic “tipping point” has been reached in Greece, signifying a break with a one way pre-dictated future, and adding vital fresh wind by pointing to the possibility of multiple alternative imaginary worldviews. Those may never come, but a point has been reached from where, so it seems, can be no simple return to the previous state of affairs, and a process of envisioning different futures has finally been initiated.

No one can foresee the results of this unpredictable process, as the aforementioned “opening” of alternatives takes place in a highly complex spatiotemporal context where different – and at times opposing – forces constantly influence their flourishing and/or failure. Greece is affected by the global economic recession more than any other European country, and is the first Western nation to face such a dramatic economic downturn since the end of World War II. Macroeconomic and social indicators point to a deep humanitarian crisis: real GDP has shrunk by 25,5%, general unemployment skyrocketed from 7.2% in 2008 to 27.2 in late 2014 and more than 3 million people have no health insurance.

Furthermore, as it became obvious in the recent negotiations regarding the Greek public debt and the continuation of the financing of the state, core EU countries appeared explicitly hostile even to the articulation of a storyline that contradicts the imperative of austerity. Thus, any alternative narrative coming out of Greece has not only to compete with vested interests within the country, but also has the dual task to simultaneously provide immediate relief from the effects of the accumulated austerity measures and create the necessary alliances at a European level in order to find the vital space to flourish.

Syriza and the grassroots movements

We should not disregard the fact that Syriza came to power only partly because of widespread radical grassroots support, but also due to an increased middle class delegation, and the vast majority of the Greek people are still sceptical towards a Eurozone exit. Against this background we should not neglect that there are many Eurosceptical political and social groups within Greece who exercise sharp criticism of Syriza for its Eurocentrism and its political choice to water down its rhetoric and its political practices in order to remain within the Eurozone. This criticism combined with the possible inability of the new government to implement radical policies in the short term, will probably disconnect Syriza from the grassroots movements which supported it and it can possibly lead to a governmental change within the next few months.

Then again, there are several reasons to suggest that the prospect of flourishing alternatives is now brighter than before. Syriza’s rhetoric, although having been watered down significantly during the last couple of years, and especially after the recent elections, originally stems from a truly radical left background which is hard to discard totally. Furthermore, the legacy of the Greek “Indignados” in 2011 and the explosion of grassroots solidarity ventures that followed throughout the whole country, in combination with the clear delegitimation of the previous political order, indicate that a simple return to an austerity driven future will not be tolerated.

This trend is evident by the fact that after the first, largely symbolic actions of the new government, its approval rate has increased significantly, encompassing broader parts of the electorate which hadn’t voted for Syriza. Finally, possible political coalitions with potential governments in other countries of the European south, notably Podemos in Spain, are now more likely than before. The “internationalization” by Syriza of a problem that was previously considered only Greek may have failed to find immediate support from actual governments, but managed to check the possibility of future coalitions. By pushing EU governments to uncover their undemocratic face, it possibly opened space for wider political change. As recently suggested by Antonio Negri and Raúl Sánchez Cedillo, Syriza’s bet is a political intervention within and against the European Union, hoping for transnational cooperation. This view of Syriza transforming Europe may be nothing but a social construct, but social constructs do affect reality too!

The multiple faces of Syriza

It is interesting to note the different faces and meanings of Syriza, in Greece and at a European level. From a distance, Syriza may look like a homogeneous radical party, trying to implement an almost extreme left political agenda, in an EU country. But if one takes a closer look at its constitution and tries to understand why and how Syriza came into power, a different picture emerges.

Firstly, we should differentiate between Syriza as a political party and the new government which is primarily based on Syriza. While the party’s radical left components vary from traditional Marxist–Leninist communists and European new lefts to radical ecologists and feminists, the government encompasses an even broader spectrum of political perspectives, also including some right wing conservatives and even nationalists. Of course not all of those groups are equally influential, neither within Syriza nor in the government. Syriza’s hegemonic leadership is primarily characterized by moderation and, in an effort to balance all those different and even opposing components, it has rounded up its radical discourse and now primarily expresses a more social democrat political agenda. The fact that Syriza is presented as a homogeneous radical alternative within Europe does nothing but highlight the current conservative turn of the EU.

To this date, none of the party’s diverse groups has been excluded from either the government or public consultation and through this dynamic co-existence, multiple futures can be envisaged depending on how those perspectives will be negotiated among them. While this heterogeneous co-existence may prove to be a major weakness in the implementation of effective governance, at the same time it also constitutes the very hope for the emergence of a real democracy in Greece and beyond. For as long as the government remains open and non-homogenized, it gives the possibility to social movements to play an important role in formulating the political agenda. Syriza by its history cannot neglect or, worse, violently suppress social movements. By showing that no voice should be excluded from the political debates but also from the governing institutions and structures, it makes space for a political society to emerge. To which extent grassroots social movements will react positively and take advantage of this opportunity is something that nobody can foresee.

Environmental contradictions and prospects

There is no doubt that at least in rhetoric, most of Syriza’s voices seem to be significantly more environmentally aware than their predecessors, and there are several fields of action where the government shift might have a positive effect on the environment, e.g. regarding supporting renewables or taking action against big polluters. Indeed voices exist, unheard previously, albeit marginal within the government that are affiliated with a green cooperative economic model. The pre-elections “marriage” between Syriza and the Greek Greens seems to substantiate this shift.

Nevertheless, Syriza at its core remains productivist, and the tight fiscal situation reinforces this trend. Even extreme scenarios of exiting the Eurozone do not really confront the extractivist capitalist logic. The ones who argue in favour of an exit are strongly affiliated with a model for the restructuring of the national productive forces based on industrial development and fossil fuel extraction in the Aegean and Ionian Sea. Following the classical Left rhetoric which prioritizes the social over the environmental by separating them, Syriza’s first actions regarding some of the core socio-environmental issues that emerged over the last years do not point towards a radically new direction with regard to environmental policy.

While over the last years Syriza had a clear position against the controversial gold mining investment by Eldorado Gold in Halkidiki (Northern Greece), after the elections its rhetoric has been watered down significantly by accepting that the whole investment is legal and cannot be discarded and that the only thing that can be done is to review individual agreements for possible infringements regarding the environmental and social impact of the investment. Similar political shifts have already taken place regarding other high impact mega projects like the privatization and “development” of the ex-international Athens airport in Elliniko, as well as for the privatization of other state assets.

Room for radical environmental policies?

Is there any room for radical environmental policies then? Again, despite the productivist agenda and the aforementioned shifts in Syriza’s red lines regarding environmental issues, the possible redemocratization that the new government espouses might prove to be an opportunity to open up more spaces for deliberation, so that societal, bottom up voices can be heard and incorporated in decision-making processes. Once more, Syriza’s internal heterogeneity might operate in favour of those bottom-up voices.

For example, while the Minister of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy is a productivist-oriented Marxist, in favour of industrial development and extraction projects, his Vice Minister originally comes from a political ecological background and is a member of the Greek Greens – a party traditionally against gold-mining and oil extraction in Greece. Furthermore, several of Syriza’s members and subgroups are explicitly oriented towards radical ecology and are even keen on scenarios which envisage prosperity beyond the growth imperative, such as the degrowth proposal. Moreover, Syriza has created a fund since more than two years ago in order to support social solidarity and alternative socioecological ventures. To conclude, even though one could argue that a major radical shift regarding environmental issues is unlikely to happen, promoting direct engagement in political action may be an indirect way to more environmentally sound policies.

A critique of growth might even be more necessary in times of crisis

After 5 years of recession in Greece it is indeed hard to ignore the importance of economic growth as an imperative, and Syriza is no exception. Following a Keynesian strategy, it criticizes austerity and backs a European New Deal, proposing a growth-financed repayment of Greece’s debt. But what if growth does not come? A critique of growth may indeed be even more necessary in times of crisis, when political antagonisms are neglected or temporarily paused, in view of a fake consensus that is “the growth of the economy”. GDP growth is required to start repaying the loans, and so we must go on with extractions and privatizations, so the story goes. Therefore capitalism’s cultural hegemony and basic logic of accumulation returns triumphantly, at the point of its biggest failure, overlooking the fact that countries that experienced the fastest growth rates in the past are the ones who now face the results of the crisis most intensely.

Any envisioned “degrowth society” must necessarily be born from the current, capitalist one. So an emancipatory proposal must be both realizable today, but also aim to destabilize hierarchical structures and create the conditions or radical new institutions to emerge and popularize. One of the biggest challenges for the future is therefore to recognize and support the initiatives and institutional proposals that, while being able to survive in the present system, can at the same time work towards its destabilization. A key point in suggesting unconventional proposals, is their synthesis and complementarity, as they reinforce each other. The current situation in Greece, exactly because it is transitional and liminal, provides an opportunity to produce new narratives and visions. Degrowth, in concert with growing movements on the commons and solidarity economy may provide a fresh narrative for outlining a wished direction for the society, by initiating a collective visioning process, outside the neoliberal economistic frame.

Panos Petridis

Panos Petridis is currently a researcher and doctoral candidate at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna (Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt), working on issues of island sustainability, protected area management as well as socio-ecological transitions.

Tags: anti-austerity policies, degrowth, social movements, Syriza