Politics

SYRIZA and the search for Europe’s alternatives

The rise of the Greek radical left SYRIZA to power, roughly a month ago, was undeniably a shock for Europe’s public sphere. A positive shock for those progressive forces left of centre, that have been anxiously waiting for some viable alternative to the never ending austerity; and a rather negative shock for the forces at the other side of the fence, ranging from mainstream social-democracy to the neoliberal right, that for the first time had to face a government that does not recognise the quasi-sacred laws of neoliberal deregulation and ‘competitiveness’, and aspires to articulate an alternative discourse, replacing ‘restrictive fiscal policy’ and ‘structural reforms’ with ‘equality’ and ‘dignity’. Not surprisingly, the response by the hegemonic political forces within Europe, as incarnated in its emblematic technocrats, has been hostile and indeed harsh; maybe even harsher than SYRIZA was expecting it to be.

At first, backed by an unprecedented wave of popular support, with thousands of pro-government protesters in the streets of Athens and of numerous other European cities, SYRIZA seemed to be stealing the limelight, against its European partners that figured as reluctant to discussing even the slightest deviation from Greece’s already existing programme; a programme that has led the country in ruins and unimaginable social pain. Even if at the end of this first cycle of negotiations, and as we are enjoying the first days of this peculiar 4-month truce, Greece seems to have backed down so much that it can be regarded as defeated, its public presence and discourse in the meantime have already caused small but significant cracks on the dominant –almost monolithic– economic model that the EU has adopted since the break of the crisis in 2009. Now, whether those first cracks are going to evolve into deep rifts, causing major ruptures and even a paradigm shift in Europe’s policies, this is another story and will probably need a lot more time, and definitely the rise of ally anti-austerity forces in other European countries (most significantly in Spain) in order to unravel. For now, SYRIZA’s government seems desperately lonely, concerning European alliances, with its counterparts not daring to dispute or challenge Germany’s hegemony.

Nevertheless, what SYRIZA has already managed to achieve, is to expose in a crystal clear way Europe’s post-democratic, and indeed anti-democratic face. Its main weapon at the negotiations was that it had a clear popular mandate to end the policies of austerity –dictated by the notorious ‘memorandum’ and checked by the equally notorious ‘troika’– and to move towards an alternative path with the aim to ease social pain, reverse the humanitarian crisis, and pursue a redistribution of wealth in favour of the lower and middle social strata, through the progressive reform of the country’s deeply flawed taxation system. Hardly a ‘radical-left’ programme! One would even be right to point out that mainstream social-democracy had proposed and implemented quite more radical policies back in its ‘golden years’ after the late 1940s.

However, the rather cynical answer of Greece’s European partners to SYRIZA’s intention to start implementing the programme for which it was voted, was a strict and blunt ‘no’. SYRIZA’s suggestions where perceived as unthinkable, ‘irresponsible’, or even outrageous. In this way, Europe’s leading figures practically reduced democratic elections to a hollow façade, a ritual without actual content and impact on the lives of citizens, since they expected the new Greek government to implement the exact same set of policies with the previous one. Their concerns had nothing to do with democratic legitimation, but rather with a pressing demand to the Greek government to strictly ‘comply with the rules’, meaning Eurogroup’s directives and a set of measures that are predetermined on a technocratic level, at top negotiations, and behind closed doors. The fact that a democratic electorate in a sovereign member state –i.e. Greece– had just overwhelmingly rejected this very agenda, seemed of little importance. What is more, the fact that the programme advocated by Greece’s European partners had continuously failed in its projections, producing more recession and more unemployment than it had estimated, and leading the debt to GDP ratio to rise, rather than drop, seemed of equally little importance, while the institutions responsible for this utter failure stand reluctant to articulate even a moderate bit of self-critique.

Still, this is something that a lot of us already knew. What has changed is that after quite a while the possibility of a radical alternative, the very prospect of change has started to be publicly discussed at the top level of Europe. Along with this long supressed possibility, another taboo issue, the recognition of Europe’s failures and severe mismanagement concerning the ‘salvation programme’ for Greece, as well as for other countries of the EU periphery, has also been openly discussed and debated.

Thus, even if SYRIZA is defeated at the end, forced to comply with Europe’s inflexible neoliberal doxa, it has already achieved a first small victory: political disagreement, that is the very heart of democratic dialogue, has re-entered Europe’s protected and remote rooms of power. Along with disagreement, passionately invested alternatives can be again discussed and debated. And indeed the possibility of a new egalitarian agenda, that forms the core of the European Radical Left’s proposals, can inspire hope amongst the middle and lower social strata that have been severely hit by the ongoing crisis; a crisis that worryingly enough is steadily evolving from an ‘exceptional’ situation, into a quasi-regime. This new radical and surely populist European Left, that has now placed high hopes upon SYRIZA and Podemos, puts forth a set of values and objectives very different from what has been widely discussed since recently as ‘populist’: equality, participation in decision making, democratic accountability, radical redistribution of wealth, human rights. This hardly looks like a ‘threat’ to Europe’s democratic future. It is rather a challenge for the radicalisation of European democracy, and a revenge of the long forgotten value of social justice, against individualism and competitiveness.

As Europe’s mainstream forces are putting all their efforts to suppress and defeat this egalitarian-left alternative, they should not forget that at the same time, another ‘alternative’ is patiently waiting on the wings. One that is harping on the prospect of new national isolationisms, one that fuels xenophobia and intolerance, and is based on an elitist vision of strong leaderships and hierarchical societies. It is no coincidence that the emblematic European figure of this ‘alternative’, Marine Le Pen, immediately urged to denounce Greece’s agreement with the European institutions as a shameful retreat, accusing SYRIZA that it had eventually ‘succumbed to the Euro-dictatorship’, betraying its people and effectively confirming that the Front National and its likes are the only viable alternatives to this undemocratic Europe, linking popular sovereignty to robust national sovereignty and democracy to a renewed nationalism. Now that’s a real challenge and most probably a threat to a Europe of democracy, freedom and tolerance.

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