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Was Syriza's capitulation to the right inevitable – and could Britain go the same way?

Four years since Syriza took power, KEVIN OVENDEN argues they acted as a pressure valve to Greek anger over austerity, never intending to harness the mass movements that brought them to power

FOUR years ago this weekend saw the formation of the Syriza-ANEL coalition government in Greece promising an end to the austerity memorandums imposed on the country.

There is a broad similarity between the situation in Britain in the run-up to Brexit and that in Greece with its confrontation with the EU in the spring and early summer of 2015.

That might seem an outlandish thing to say. The leading party of the Greek coalition in 2015 was of the left. In Britain it is the Tories resting upon support from the Paisleyites of the Democratic Unionist Party.
The differences are indeed obvious. But the similarity is this.
The atmosphere in Greece from April to July 2015 felt like a pressure cooker. I describe it my book on the Syriza experience as a claustrophobic atmosphere as Greek society stepped deeper into a labyrinth, the walls pressing in on both sides.
There was a great national political confrontation - one that set the direction of “the nation.” It dominated the country’s politics.
At the same time the fundamental popular mood was for an end to the nightmare of austerity. And that was very concrete and material for people.
It meant actual, material relief to the crises of health, housing, pay, unemployment, pauperisation of the working and middle classes... and their impact on individuals and their families as it had accumulated over six years of crisis.
In fact, it started even in the “good years” of a boom that had amplified inequality, exploitation, personal indebtedness and the domination of all areas of life by casino capitalism.
It is not that the mass of people in Greece were indifferent to the big national clash or the “high politics” of the government’s manoeuvres and endless EU summits.
It is that at a popular level those were viewed, even if indirectly, through the prism of the crises of everyday life – crises greater than in Britain, though under the Tory regime of foodbanks and homelessness it begins to approach them for so many millions.
The downside of that time was that the governmental left did not ground the high political clash with the corporate capitalist EU in that fundamental sentiment or in the continuation and renewal of the social struggles and revolts that had brought it to office and had broken the old party system in the first place.
For the leading forces of Syriza those struggles had been merely a means to stir people up so as then to move to the “political moment.” That meant just conventional parliamentary elections and the bureaucratic-diplomatic politics of a “battle with the troika,” conducted purely at meetings of eurozone finance ministers and EU Commissioners.
Those now saying that the leading forces in Syriza should have done more to stimulate popular movements at the time need to recognise why they did not do so. It was above all that their conception of politics meant they saw a dichotomy between those movements and “proper politics” at the government, state and interstate level.
There were some important social struggles – in the hospitals, on the anti-racist/anti-fascist front and in the municipalities. The combative left threw itself into those and mounted systematic efforts to win and widen them.
But the overall balance of political forces meant a situation in which the big national clash with the EU created a suffocating atmosphere. Many people felt that until that impasse was broken one way or another there could be no advance on any of the social fronts that had built the oppositional mood to austerity and produced the swing to the left.
No immediate advance on the issues that dominated people’s lives, from waking up after fitful sleep to putting the kids to bed at night.
And that was reinforced by the left-led government reducing its supporters to spectators on a battle that they were not given tools to intervene in themselves and directly.
The one big moment when people did have that opportunity – when the government called the referendum in July 2015 more as a means of retreat than of going on the offensive – the popular layers responded magnificently.
There was a 62 per cent No vote of defiance, despite a campaign of fear that throws anything in Britain today into the shade. The banks were actually closed, credit lines were cut, hospitals had to pay in advance to import medicines, the whole European establishment and systemic forces talked up a state of siege and of imminent catastrophe.
Still people – above all the working class – said “oxi” – no. It was not sufficient to create a large enough alternative pole to the government’s course of capitulation. But it offered a glimpse of the possible.
Recalling this now is helpful in Britain, where there is this similar pattern of an historic and national political crisis alongside – as surveys and evidence from labour movement activists show – a deep bitterness about how accumulated austerity and widening inequality are maiming people’s everyday lives.
A great danger is that people feel impotent in the face of the political crisis and are then dominated by the official debate, which is largely over different capitalist and systemic options.
It is not possible to evade the overarching political crisis. The left needs to give an answer to that which speaks to the direction of the whole society and of “the nation.”
That cannot be done by a micro-politics – a fight against fracking here, building social support for a foodbank there; an anti-racist initiative one day, a fight over school funding the next. Those are critical. Without them there is no progress. But by themselves they do not provide a truly radical political alternative.

If such an answer is not given then each act of opposition remains contained and relegated to just disparate social struggles that run up against a political barrier, with the politics done elsewhere.
That is why it is so important that there is a unifying commitment on most of the left in Britain to campaigning for a general election and forcing the Tories out, based upon developing, expanding and unifying these areas of campaigning and social struggle.
There are obvious and direct impacts. It can increase the pressure on the government. It can strengthen the left pole in the representative political system: the left leadership of the Labour Party, its supporters in Parliament and in the wider labour movement. It can tip the balance in the conventional political system.
It also has the potential to do more. That is to go beyond the dilemma of sectional social struggles and local solidarity on the one hand, and conventional parliamentary representational politics on the other. Beyond the poles of apolitical movementism and gradualist parliamentarism.
It is to make visible and more widely participated in a truly radical anti-capitalist politics. One continuity through the boom and bust years of the last decade and a half is the growing number of people on both sides of the Atlantic grasping towards profound change, their imaginations open to anti-capitalist alternatives.
In Britain they are young and old, blue-collar and white-collar, city and town, Leave and Remain.
Among the 32,000 school students who walked out of classes in Brussels this week to demand action on the environment the most popular slogan was: “system change, not climate change.”
That all calls for a politics that answers, in and through mass movements, the big questions that we are meant to think are the preserve of experts of the professional political layers – politicians, journalists and prominent figures – in the official political spaces: Parliament, television studios and newspaper columns.
It’s a politics that is truly radical in form and content, and in who is the subject – who is “doing” this politics.
It flashed brilliantly into view during highpoints of the struggle in Greece over the last decade (and elsewhere: Egypt, the Spanish state, and other places to varying extents).
It’s a political strategy that has not been disinterested in parliamentary and electoral outcomes. It has a relationship with achieving left representation and a left government. But it is more than a social auxiliary to a change in conventional parliamentary representation.
That’s what at stake in how the radical and anti-capitalist left responds to the Brexit crisis in Britain, which is crescendoing.
It is exactly at such moments that there is both the maximum pressure to abandon such a radical perspective and also the greatest potential gain if it is organised around, promoted, initiatives taken and a mass counter-politics comes to enter the stage.

It’s at moments like this that we need a radical politics of hope that busts the bounds of convention and of the status quo – in all its forms.

Britain can do better than Greece four years ago.


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