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The Permanency of the Left’s Defeat in Greece

After the painful capitulation of Greece’s Syriza led government to the impositions of the country’s European creditors, one point of consolation for Europe’s left has been “now we know who the enemy is.” Such is the darkness of these times that even this minimalist point must be denied any merit. This isn’t 2010 when the Troika first introduced itself as a creditor junta imposing austerity on a rattled and desperate PASOK government in Athens. Since then there’s been full scale bailout programs in Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus, a second program in Greece and a bank bailout program in Spain; all of these opportunities to witness the monstrosity that is the European Project in moments of existential crisis.

After five years of Troika politics how could a party of the left like Syriza put so much faith in negotiations with European creditors? Looking back over previous months and years it’s not difficult to see how much of the blame for austerity was redirected away from the Troika and at the various national governments merely operating within limits of Europe’s austerity regime. In Greece, this took the form of the Syriza narrative that the PASOK and New Democracy governments were ineffective negotiators. Vague language by creditors referencing debt restructuring was herald as a victory, even though the previous governments won similar vague commitments.

In Portugal, much of the left has fixated on the idea that prime minister Passos Coelho went beyond the Troika. Of course, Coelho built up this narrative himself but it was more image than substance; an effort to build positive publicity of a reformed Portugal that took the medicine without making a fuss. But one only has to look to the Troika’s call for additional measures like suppressing wages, curtailing collective bargaining, and pension ‘sustainability’ to see how much further the Troika wanted to go than the Portuguese government. Still, the idea of a prime minister more pro-austerity than the troika was too much for the left to resist, all the while structural explanations for austerity didn’t get the central focus they deserved.

The hope on the left is that after all these years of Austerity Europe, the capitulation of Syriza will finally build a left consensus on rupture with the euro. I think this is greatly mistaken. Much of Syriza’s capitulation has been blamed on yet another villain, again opting for figures to blame instead of structures. ‘It’s Schäuble who’s ruining Europe by trying to drive Greece out of the euro,’ the narrative goes. It can get extremely hyperbolic like France’s Left Front leader Melenchon arguing that the “German government is destroying Europe” for the third time in a century, conflating tens of millions of deaths with the end of an illusion that even modest social-democratic politics could coexist with the European Project. This doesn’t sound like a left learning from five years of experience.

The stance of Germany and other so-called creditor states rightly provokes outrage but it can hardly be considered a betrayal of Europe. Germany’s stance is aligned with the euro drafted in the Maastricht treaty: a currency union without fiscal transfers between member-states and limits on debt and deficits. The whole response to the outbreak in 2010 of the sovereign debt crisis has been an effort to reinforce that exact model for the euro. It’s of course a disastrous model that produces enormous economic suffering in the periphery, but it’s the model periphery countries signed up for and rule out leaving. The outrage committed by Germany has been the injection of national chauvinism promoting stereotypes of work-shy southern Europeans. This, coupled with the moralism of repaying the debt and fiscal discipline, builds up dangerous economic grievances framed on national lines.

This is where the permanency of the defeat in Greece becomes evident. Syriza for months witnessed the rigidness of the Euro Zone on debt and fiscal policy. It then called a referendum and locked in some of the costs that would come with a euro-exit like rationing bank notes, disruption to Greek industries, and a political crisis involving rival pro-govt and anti-govt demonstrations. Having endured some of the economic damage that would come with a Grexit, Tsipras doubled down on negotiations with creditors who then extract harsher conditions. This isn’t a retreat to regroup, this is the acceptance that there’s no alternative to being administrators of a creditor vassal state.

The situation offers a golden opportunity for Europe’s far-right. Right-wing and xenophobic euroskeptic parties can champion themselves as the only political force that is capable of saying no to the authoritarian liberalism of the European project. ‘The left is ideologically compromised’, they will argue, ‘choosing to keep intact the European Project rather than defend their voters from creditor impositions’. The far-right will get the chance to end the monetary union on their terms. The last humiliation for Europe’s left will be the emotional blackmail to close ranks with the EU to halt the far-right’s advance.