Greece: Promising the meta-austerity era: Directions and dilemmas

by Theodora Vetta & Anastasios Grigorakis, original source FocaalBlog

Thessaloniki, 21 January 2015.

logo_focaal_mediumSince the announcement of the Greek elections, Greece has once again become the center of global attention. We know that just by watching the news on Greek TV channels. We learn bits and bytes about the discussion that has opened around possible scenarios for debt restructuring, possible domino effects of a Grexit, or analyses of the failed rescue plans. Yet, we learn substantially more about public statements coming from Wolfgang Schäuble and company, statements that address various audiences and that are meant to have disciplinary effects, to foster fear (or “reason,” in their terms). For one moment we feel happy that the era of brutal cultural stigmatization seems over (at least in mainstream media discourse), a time when Channel 4 could broadcast the reality show Go Greek for a Week. But maybe this is because we are now debating the future, not the causes, of the crisis. After all, Angela Merkel has been recurrently praising the hardworking Greeks who have patiently led the country out of the crisis.

Within Greece, the debate is rather built around the dilemmas that the majority of the voters face in everyday life: taxation, unemployment, and humanitarian crisis. These elections are said to be the most important in the postdictatorial era. One way or another, they are supposed to signal the beginning of the “meta-memorandum era” and the return of dignity to the crisis-ridden Greek society. According to the current coalition government of socialists and conservatives, the primary budget surplus achieved has proved that the Greek rescue plan was a “success story” and that the debt is finally sustainable; they plea for a “responsible vote” so that the huge sacrifices of “the nation” won’t be lost. The Syriza party, on the other hand, opens up the road for a historically unprecedented victory of the left; it promises the end of austerity and a renegotiation of debt. The dichotomy summarizing the two main political options is the one of uncertainty versus hope. However, I have the feeling that things did change since the 2012 elections. Grexit scenarios don’t seem to mobilize indecisive voters that much anymore, although such fear tactics are once again at play. New Democracy has in fact a better and more powerful framework to sell, one that enjoys vast support from a wide specter of the population: the war against “statism.”

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s speech at his party program’s official presentation is representative of this argument. After presenting the alleged success of the reforms achieved until now, he continued:

We should not knee in front of our bad fate [κακό ριζικό]; because the statism that we have to cast off, and the totalitarianism that we have to defeat, these are the bad fate of this land. The statism brought us to this crisis. Populism, I say it clearly, is what corrupted us as people. It poisoned our political life. It paralyzed our economy, our university. It keeps us behind. It doesn’t let us exploit the power of Greeks [του Έλληνα], to liberate the dynamism of our nation…Our adversary is a scream/cry, not a discourse/reason. They are an accident. We will defeat populism. Let’s “break” the establishment, and let’s not obey to our fate.

Populism is, of course, an ambiguous term that has taken very different meanings in very different contexts. Focusing on Latin American leaders, postsocialist nationalists, or the US tea party, lots of analysts have examined populism as an ideological option, a political culture, or simply a rhetorical style. Populism as a category resurfaced intensively during this period of the economic crisis, and even if we may raise several doubts about its analytical use, we must certainly acknowledge its importance as an emic discursive tool for discrediting political enemies. A populist is the one who makes big promises that he or she can’t fulfill. Critique, in the land of “there is no alternative,” is often discredited as populism, too. Alexis Tsipras, the head of Syriza, is systematically portrayed as a populist par excellence. Of course, depicting the enemy always means defining the self. If Tsipras is a populist (and allegedly a dangerous one), the government appears as realist, responsible, and even moral. In Greece, populism also carries a specific historical weight, since, apart from a political communication style, it is closely associated with the father of the socialist party PASOK, Andreas Papandreou, who led a PASOK government for two consecutive terms from 1981 to 1989. His political opponents have often referred to the 1980s as “the lost decade of populism”—not solely because Papandreou might have been a charismatic leader but because populism is linked with the expansion of public expenses, public employment (associated with clientelism), and public debt. The first PASOK government did satisfy to a certain extent the strong redistributive social demands after the fall of the military dictatorship in the mid-1970s. Public expenses did expand in the effort to build a basic welfare state and offer employment to a large segment of the population that, being affiliated with more left options, had been excluded (and at times severely persecuted) for decades. A nationalization wave did take place as well, but, at the time, it had less to do with a political agenda of restructuring production and more with the effort to safeguard employment within bankrupt firms (the so-called “problematic enterprises”) and with clientelistic relations between private capital and political elites through state banks.

This is not the place to critically examine the economic policies of that period. Here we are more interested in how populism is currently used discursively to legitimate state-targeted austerity and at the same time discredit the left. The argument is clear: the expansion of the public sector in the 1980s brought the expansion of public debt, which, in turn, brought us the current crisis. The politics of remembering and forgetting are quite impressive here. For example, the decades of the 1990s and 2000s are comfortably sidelined. This was the period of neoliberal restructuring carried out by both a “reformed” PASOK and New Democracy governments—a period when booming GDP rates associated with financialization and the Olympics were celebrated as a sign of “a strong Greece” and “modernization”; when European integration got underway following the Maastricht treaty and the introduction of the single currency; when labor was deregulated significantly, parts of production were transferred to the Balkan El Dorado, wages were stagnant, unemployment kept rising, and consumption patterns were reproduced through deregulated banking credit.

For the populist argument, all of the above are irrelevant. New Democracy doesn’t need historical scrutiny to convince its audience, because actually it resonates with a widely shared cross-class resentment of the public sector and its employees. This is not a new phenomenon of course, nor is it limited to Greece, but during the crisis it gained unprecedented supremacy (and urgent anthropological work is needed to unpack the demonization of the state and the rivalry between private/public employees). The antistatism argument is thus very appealing and mobilizing. It makes sense, in a way, for many. There is a clear explanation for the crisis (whatever that is) and a clear relevant solution out of it.

Certainly, Syriza has gathered lots of resentment votes from a wide range of the political spectrum. Many polls have actually pointed to the volatile character of past voting patterns and intentions, to a large fluidity of voters among very different political parties. Among the left-wing voters of Syriza, there is a widespread feeling of enthusiasm and disappointment, hope and agony. For many, this attractive/repulsive mode has to do with Syriza’s bordering between radicalization and so-called electoral pragmatism. To be sure, Syriza is not a radical anticapitalist party of the left, but for many people, even modest Keynesianism seems pretty revolutionary in the dramatic social reality of today’s Greece. Tsipras was very loud in exposing the strategies of fear that the government was deploying through the media. He accused the prime minister of “leading the dance of zombies” when he brought the Grexit scenarios back on the scene. Whereas this might be true (and fear strategies are indeed not that convincing anymore), it is true as well that Syriza is retreating from its more assertive statements of 2012. Past references to “debt default” are replaced by “debt relief” and “renegotiation.” Its earlier slogan “no sacrifice for the euro” is nowhere to be heard anymore. An explicit criticism of the structural properties of European Union integration and the euro is missing, and instead we hear more about the “Europe of memorandums” and the “Europe of austerity,” the “European elites,” and not the particular nature of the European project itself. Even if Syriza has over and over again stressed that its goal is staying in the Eurozone, this shouldn’t necessarily mean that the euro has to remain a taboo. What is going on? Obviously it’s not a matter of ignorance. Is it a matter of electoral pragmatism?

First, the scaling back from more confrontational tactics could indeed signal a certain conservative shift of the political content of Syriza (or at least of the group around Tsipras) in light of a possible necessity to form a coalition government (either with the antimemorandum right-wing nationalist party of Independent Greeks or with the new party the River, presented as a metapolitical formation, full of intentional ambiguity but deeply neoliberal).

Second, this shift could be indeed the effect of Syriza’s efforts to win the majority of the popular vote and form a more stable majority government. In this case, costly coalitions won’t be needed. As many of my friends say, “There is no time for analyses now; now they need governmental power; now they shouldn’t scare conservative Greeks away; one thing at a time…now we need a majority.” Again, we have a “there is no alternative” explanation, and here by no means do we hint to some kind of emerging opportunism or some lust for governmental power. Quite the contrary, justification for cutting corners for electoral victory comes from the widespread repulsion for the current devastating social situation.

However, deradicalization is not confined to discursive strategies alone. Syriza has gathered under its wings a good number of repentant socialists from PASOK and even well-known MPs from the nationalist right camp. And this happened with probably unprecedented (for Syriza) organizational centralization, as the controversial candidates in the MP lists were a top-down type of imposition, one that has caused heated conflict with Syriza’s regional bodies. These cannot be but very alarming signs for a wannabe first government of the left.

One thing at a time, but with what kind of supportive electoral base will Syriza proceed to the second “thing”? What will happen when, after dealing with the humanitarian crisis, it will have to draw migration laws, secularize the state, or introduce same-sex weddings? Syriza does need a majority government, but it may be looking for it in the wrong place. It targets the so-called “center,” the destroyed “middle class.” Who is that really? How many are they? Are we talking about class self-identification here [οι νοικοκυραίοι]? And why isn’t the working class the first “target group” of a historical left party? Some might say that this is just a part of communication strategies. This reminds us of the Spanish Podemos party that has renounced class discourse intentionally, even if internally Marxist analysis is central to its plans. However, looking at the very weak presence of Syriza in labor movements reveals the deeper roots of the problem; it makes it much more than a simple discursive strategy. And even if this was just a product of political marketing, isn’t this managerial approach to politics what the left is supposed to fight?

Syriza is going to form the next government. We are skeptical but also excited. As we said before, this is an attraction/repulsion relationship.

Theodora Vetta is a postdoctoral researcher at the ERC Grassroots Economics program, University of Barcelona.

Anastasios Grigorakis holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Paris 8, Vincennes.