Greece lights up Europe


27 January 2015

For details of our public meeting about the Greek election, click here.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of the Greek election last Sunday. It is the first time in decades that a government has come to power in Europe which is both hostile to neoliberal economics and grounded in social movements. The people who have suffered most from the financial crisis have created a spark of hope for all of us.

Greece has been subject to five years of economic torture at the hands of the European authorities and the IMF. Like so many African, Latin American and Asian countries before it, a crisis created by European bankers and corrupt elites has been paid for by ordinary people through destruction of the welfare state, mass unemployment, suspension of trade union rights, liberalisation and a firesale of public assets back to those very elites.  

Youth unemployment runs at over 60%; rates of suicide, HIV infection, drug use and violent crime have sky-rocketed; treatment for disease carries a personal financial cost; migrants are scapegoated; homelessness is visible everywhere. Meanwhile, the debt pile, which was supposed to be slowly eroded by this austerity, has actually grown.

None of this happened without protest. Greece's second bailout was passed amid mass protests and tear gas. When one prime minister tried to institute a referendum, he was dismissed by politicians representing his overlords in the EU. In effect democracy was suspended in Greece, and the country was run on behalf of its creditors.

No politicians can claim ignorance of the likely consequences of these actions. The very same medicine had the very same effect in Africa in the 1980s and 90s. African economies were devastated, its people impoverished in their millions by the World Bank’s and the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programmes. On the other hand, Europe's leaders also know how to help an economy recover: they did it in Germany after the war. With vastly smaller (and more justified) debts than Greece, Germany was given massive debt cancellation and all debt repayments were linked to export growth. It worked.

But the treatment meted out to Greece wasn't about reducing a debt. It was about using a good crisis to further restructure society in the interests of the 1%. 

Now there's a chance to change all this. Despite vilification in the media, Syriza's programme is rational and humane: reduce the debt, restore wages and trade union rights, revive the welfare state. Indeed, to oppose such policies is extreme.

The only problem – as Pablo Iglesias, leader of poll-topping Spanish party Podemos commented in a superb speech – is that winning an election does not mean winning power:

“What we have ahead of us is not going to be an easy road. We first have to win the elections — and only afterwards will the real difficulties begin... Don’t forget that the powerful almost never accept the results of elections when they don’t like them.”

For Syriza to be able to genuinely exercise power, therefore, the social movements from which it has sprung will need to play a decisive role. This is what has happened across Latin America in the last 15 years: progressive governments have been both held to account by mass movements, and continually pushed forward by them too. In tandem, mass movements and political power have transformed Latin America, slashing poverty and reducing inequality.

This and much more will be needed in Greece. The government will be subject to the most enormous pressure to backtrack on its promises. If they refuse, Europe's financial elite will “make the economy scream”, to pick up the phrase Richard's Nixon used when destabilising Allende's Chile. Defending and promoting democracy will require not only the most incredible upsurge of  activity by Greece's people, but also massive solidarity from across Europe.  

When we changed our name last week, we wanted to make clear the need to link up struggles for justice in the global North with the global South. In the era of the global super-rich, the majority of the world’s population are ‘in this together’, wherever they live. There is no other way to really begin addressing the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

Just as we would show solidarity to the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America when confronted by the huge power of financial interests, so we also show solidarity with the people of Greece. Greece has ignited a flame which has the potential to show all of Europe a way out of the inhumane policies which have been imposed upon our continent. It will require all of us to keep that flame alive.

For details of our public meeting about the Greek election, click here. Photo: Mirka Isaia/Flickr

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