Barbara Karatsioli: Syriza and the return of the political

The electoral win of Syriza in Greece substantiates cross-European objections to austerity. Contrary to recurrent warnings that have for years emphasized how Syriza’s electoral victory would jeopardize Greece’s future in Europe and plunge the economy further into crisis, the first weeks in government underline that Syriza’s rise to power may be just what was needed to return the political to European politics. People across Europe now go beyond mere solidarity with Greek efforts, as they call for collective action to revisit the question of how to deal with fiscal policies and indebted nations. The call is for people to come before profit, not a centralized subordination of policies to a very particular economic calculus and to technocratic power.

There are strong indications Syriza will not simply recycle proposals already rejected throughout the crisis. Rather, the party has set up an elaborate agenda, which could allow for the unfolding of a progressive program uniting the European Left(s) against the neocolonization of the European periphery.

Kouvelakis and Budgen (2015) recently offered a compelling analysis of the party’s arrival to power, noting how its economic and political proposals have emerged through both collective and individual struggles. While earlier contributions to the FocaalBlog yield important insights into national debates within Greece (Rakopoulos 2015; Vetta and Grigorakis 2015), it is crucial to look beyond Greece to consider reactions elsewhere—for example, in Ireland and Cyprus—including ongoing collaborations between activists in those countries and Greece, as these hint at the challenges and possibilities lying ahead for the people(s) of Europe and the Left.

Before discussing the potential for change harbored in the collaboration of activists in Greece, Ireland, and Cyprus, quickly revisiting the European financial crisis in these countries seems in order. Although the subprime crisis of 2007 affected mainly banks and emerged from the collapse of the United States financial system, it revealed certain structural weaknesses of the European Union’s institutional and fiscal architecture. Ultimately, national economies suffered while banks were bailed out. Greek national debt doubled in 2008 alone, and the emission of the Irish and Portuguese sovereign peripheral debts was simply a pretext for institutional transformation. Ireland was urged to resort to the newly created European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) in 2010 and pressured into accepting an emergency credit from the IMF and EU (Allen and O’Boyle 2013). Neither the quick compliance of the Irish government nor the resistance of the Greek people could halt the free fall of national economies or the concomitant social and political crises.

Predatory access to the state ending democratic processes was heightened in the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) in 2013 with the management of the Cyprus crisis. As Varoufakis (2013) rightly noted at the time, diagnosing a bank with a problem of liquidity is, above all, a political decision. By freezing financial and economic transactions, the European Central Bank (ECB) had the island under siege, even threatening withdrawal of the Central Bank of Cyprus’s right to Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) unless the IMF/ECB program was “democratically” adopted (Légé 2013; Karatsioli forthcoming). Cyprus became the embodiment of the “exceptional case,” calling for exceptional measures that allowed turning the bailout introduced during the Irish crisis into a bail-in bail-out mechanism.

Economists were quick to point out that this procedure equaled a declaration of war, not only on Cyprus (Sapir 2013) but also on democracy more generally. Rather than being occasioned by an economic crisis, fear stemmed from the ECB and IMF policies backed by political leaders from larger EU nations.

The recent election of Syriza and the party’s first two weeks in government, however, suggest fear is receding. Emotion (other than fear) is again part of the political process. Obviously, this is not a deus ex machina advent of collective action. Across the EU, people were never resigned. They continued to protest across Eastern Europe, in Romania (Mihailescu 2015), Spain, or Italy. In Greece, Syriza’s party emerged in a political union of the Left a decade ago, then building significantly on the Syntagma Square movement, local and national Occupy campaigns, members’ participation in sectoral and local struggles, neighborhood organizations, LGBT social movements, the environmental movement, and the antifascist movement. What Syriza brings to the table is, in fact, a program elaborated in crisis through collective action.

Syriza’s electoral win makes the Greek government the only one in Europe with a program based on the return of the people and the political. Its stand toward the Eurogroup suggests a way out of the crisis is possible, as is a people’s Europe. Reactions across Europe suggest that beyond the solidarity expressed with Syriza in its confrontation of the Eurogroup/IMF/ECB, there is significant reorganization, giving rise to transnational action in which Syriza is the connecting or validating link. Already in the second and third week after the election, Syriza showed its alliance with the people of Cyprus through the two-day traditional first official visit of the Greek prime minister; it is also present in Ireland through MPs and grassroots activists meeting with local activists to envisage transnational solutions.

In Cyprus, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras—himself a grassroots activist, anticapitalist, antimilitarist, left-wing visitor—was enthusiastically welcomed by pro-reunification groups and more generally by Turkish Cypriots. In a meeting with bicommunal groups such as Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR), the Federal Cyprus Initiative, gender groups, and missing persons’ representatives, the progressive demilitarization of Greece and Turkey was not only presented as a way into peace for Cyprus. Importantly, Tsipras emphasized that a concomitant reduction of military budgets, which makes for a big chunk of Greece’s national annual spending, also is a way out of the fiscal crisis. Notably, peace in Cyprus can only be achieved by the efforts of ordinary people, through a grassroots transformation of the conflict, not only by official negotiations. Welcomed by Turkish Cypriots for his political ideals that reignited the spark of grassroots reconciliation, Tsipras is feared by the Greek Cypriot right-wing government and the Turkish government for those same ideals that can nurture disobedience and political solutions forwarded by the people, even renegotiation with Troika (Jansen 2015).

Tsipras’s address to the Cyprus Parliament on February 2 was, however, militarized: cautiously avoiding discussions about the government’s positions on the ongoing Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Cyprus dispute with Turkey, he emphasized the “bordering role” Greece and Cyprus jointly play in maintaining European regional stability and securing a particularly conflictual geopolitical zone. Such language was seconded by a visit to the Greek Army stationed in Cyprus, which Tsipras again used to remind the Greek Cypriot government and Europe of Greece’s strategic geopolitical role. But then, as has been pointed out in regard to the nomination of Panos Kammenos from Syriza’s center-right coalition partner “Independent Greeks” to minister of national defence, it will be crucial to avoid a confrontation with the Army and “nationalist” Greeks, especially when Syriza is already taking on the neofascist Golden Dawn party and the heavily militarized Greek police.

Despite the underlined alliance with Cyprus, Tsipras challenged the “ethnic” historical relationship of Greeks and Greek Cypriots, suggesting a historical relationship of shared struggles, thus foregrounding the common front required to face the current crisis. The revision of history through struggles with a view to a common future posits a new European identity, one that emerges from and celebrates peoples’ struggles.

Such a programmatic approach is also visible in Syriza’s European politics. By its third week in power, the Syriza government began to divide Europe by turning governments against one another (i.e., the French-German) while progressively uniting the people(s) of Europe. Wary of its national government, the Greek Solidarity Committee in Ireland made a point to invite members of the Greek government as representatives of European claims of the people, and Greek MPs accompanied by grassroots activists met with Irish grassroots movements over the first weekend of February. Away from the prying eyes of the media and official formalities, exchanges of knowledge covered common concerns: the privatization of water, public and private debt, housing shortages, and the need for a sociopolitical economy.

Meetings with the “right to water” movement in Ireland, an umbrella for various anti-austerity groups, are first signs of coordinated action with the Greek water rights movement. Building on meetings with the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens (ATTAC) Ireland, trade unions, and other organizations in 2014 (Sotiropoulos et al. 2014); fruitful exchanges on socioeconomic strategies; and proposals on debt restructuring were furthered, not least calls for a European People’s Conference on Debt (Andromidas and Gallagher 2015). Initiatives, such as the Grassroots Strategy Weekend planned for March 6 and 7, 2015, involving anti-austerity, environmental, antiracist, feminist, and further activists, now take new impetus. Finally, the call for collaboration by Syriza to Sinn Fein needs to be rethought as a call to unity, not as a party-to-party call.

Syriza’s election, again, is the result of years of perseverance and commitment to building a “unity of the Left.” In effect, Syriza saw through what the French NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) set out to do following the 1990s and 2000s worldwide anticapitalist/antiglobalization movement. From this standpoint, while predicated on years of hard work, the election opened a new political space and suggested alternative politics and action.

As the above shows, Syriza’s government is already a transnational force with transnational claims. It voices peoples’ objections to what they see as EU and IMF technocrats, instead considering well-being and socially embedded economics. However, radical action and organization needs to be strategically thought through at the national and transnational level. An analysis of the relationship between capital accumulation at the national and European level and the current potentials for action would be timely, and there is a lot of existing work to build this on (Durand 2014; Georgiou 2014; Flassbeck and Lapavitsas 2015). As the call of the French Ensemble for a meeting with Kouvelakis on February 18 suggests, “This is only a first political counter-attack to the Europe of finance against the Europe of finance and neoliberalism.” The construction of national and European alternatives is underway, but there are challenges, including the issues that emerge from my analysis of Tsipras’s visit to Cyprus: the role of the military, nationalism, and geopolitical questions.

A touch of disciplinary reflexivity may be added here: while some economists have long denounced the inhumanity of the economic and policy model, social scientists have been complicit with the claims of capital. The impact of the crisis has been documented, but the main interrogation in social sciences is the “absence” of protests. “Why don’t people protest?” we ask, as we pursue policy-oriented grants and consider the impact of measures based on policies and institutional decisions. By concentrating on individual navigations or replying to policy-oriented “humanitarian crisis” projects, social sciences have missed out on what alternative heterodox economists have long been stipulating: economy is and should be a social science (see Neveling 2014 for a similar call). By refusing to understand the relationship to economics, they essentialize its relationship to technocrats and “overlocalize” the frame of analysis.

To the meetings with EU leadership, with the ECB, and with the IMF, Syriza brings plans for a socially embedded economic future. Such practice underlines that the expertise of lawyers and economists should be at the service of the people. In this vein, any plans for a European debt conference should not just address specialists. Grassroots formations already have excellent capacities to make economic knowledge social knowledge. In collaboration with such groups, the newly elected Syriza government places the humanitarian crisis in Greece at the center of its politics, and this allows for a refusal to disrespect individuals and collective human rights, which have been stamped on by austerity politics for far too long. This is what the return of the political to European politics is about (irrespective of Syriza winning or losing the battle with the EU, the IMF, and the ECB—which takes place on the wrong terms anyhow).

Barbara Karatsioli is a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice (ISCTSJ) at Queen’s University Belfast. She recently edited Cyprus Review 26(1)Crisis, State and Peace: Europe at the Cyprus “Border.”

Special thanks to: Christakis, Eirini, Evren, Elizabeth, Harry, Marie, Mariya, Meltem, Patrick, Rory, and Rossella.


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Cite as: Karatsioli, Barbara. 2015. “Syriza and the return of the political,” FocaalBlog, February 20,