Further thoughts on the Greek situation

I’ve sat down a few times this week intending to write something about what’s happening in Greece, but the situation has been so fluid it’s been hard to make much sense of it. Things do seem to have settled into some sort of pattern over the last couple of days though, so I’ll hazard some thoughts.

My suspicion that the Germans would stick to a hard line seems to have been right; what was more surprising was the speed with which the Syriza government caved in. Their capitulation has been met with bewilderment and not a little anger in left-wing circles, coming as it did only a few days after they had received a strong mandate from Greek workers in the referendum.

Accusations of selling-out are a little unfair I think; Tsipras and those around him seem to have expected the Germans to back down, and, when it became obvious that that wasn’t going to happen, to have calculated that it was better to remain in power, and try to offset the worst of the austerity, rather than walk away. There is some logic in this position, though, given that they have just signed away a big chunk of sovereignty, the scope for resistance may be limited.

Where Syriza can be criticicised is for allowing themselves to be boxed into such a position. They seem to have drastically underestimated the extent to which the Germans would be prepared to sacrifice their economic interests to maintain their political power. From what I have read of accounts of the negotiations it sounds as if the Greeks approached them like an academic debate, in which cold logic would win out, rather than the vicious political street fight that the Germans engaged in.

It is hard to understand why this was so; Syriza may be a broad coalition, but plenty of their senior members are experienced activists who should have seen this coming. There are reports that some in the Left Block of the party were arguing that more preparations should be made for the possibility of an exit from the Euro, but very few practical steps to this end seem to have been taken.

As things stand it is looking like a defeat for the left, but all is not lost. There will certainly be a realignment of anti-austerity forces, and while the bailout agreement has been passed by the Greek parliament it it far from clear that the Tsipras government will be able to push through the most unpopular provisions, given the level of politicisation and mobilisation of the Greek working class. There are splits emerging in the Troika too; the IMF, which is more interested in getting at least some of its money back than preserving German hegemony in Europe, may force Berlin to accept some write-off of the debt.

There are also some signs that pan-European solidarity with the Greeks may be stirring, most crucially in Germany. Even in the UK, which is always a bit detached from these things, there have been demonstrations and collections of cash for food banks and free clinics in Greece. This may not significantly alter the course of events, but might alleviate at least some of the pain.

If we have learned one thing from the last two weeks though, it’s that this crisis is far from settled, and there will undoubtedly be more unexpected developments before we can say that it is over.

Post-oxi

So the Greeks held their collective nerve and voted No on Sunday; now we wait to see whether Germany will follow through on the threat to throw Greece out of the Euro, and perhaps out of the EU altogether.

On the face of it, it makes no economic sense to take such drastic action over what, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively small sums of money, but this has always been as much a political crisis as an economic one, and, in political terms, allowing popular democracy to win out over neoliberal discipline is a much bigger threat to Europe’s rulers than even the worst shocks that might follow a Grexit from the Euro.

So my money (euro, not drachma) is on Merkel sticking to her hard line. Whatever happens, difficult times ahead for Greece.

Oxi

I’ve been involved in a lot of political activity over the years, but, being honest, I have to admit that most of it has been, if not exactly inconsequential, then marginal at best. A few minor victories here, some setbacks there, nothing that will trouble the historians. I don’t mean this dismissively; progress has always come in countless tiny increments, and some occasional leaps, and it’s usually only with the benefit of hindsight that we can tell what is significant.

That said, I have often found myself daydreaming about what it would have been like to have been around when things were really going down – Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936, Cuba in 1953, Chile in 1973; when the struggle reached a point of crisis and irrevocable choices had to be made. In the accounts I have read of such times life certainly seems to take on an intensity unmatched in my own more pedestrian experience, but often at a considerable personal cost to those involved. On balance I guess I’m glad to have lived, so far at least, in a relatively quiet period.

Of course no one really gets to choose the circumstances they live through, and people can find themselves making history without ever having sought out that responsibility. Such is the fate of the population of Greece, who go to the polls tomorrow to choose between two visions of their future, and perhaps of the future of Europe.

I wouldn’t presume, from my position of comfort in Northern Europe, to fully understand the pressures that will weigh on the Greeks as they cast their ballots, but if I were there I would be voting No. It’s far from certain that a rejection of the EU austerity plan will give Syriza the leverage they need to negotiate a better deal, but accepting a continuation of the disastrous program of the last few years will surely condemn the Greek working class to inescapable poverty.

What I have heard about the political engagement of Greek workers is encouraging, and I am hopeful that they will back Syriza in sufficient numbers to deliver a victory, though it looks like it will be close. Whatever the outcome, something has started – the long, difficult process of turning Europe away from its current course. It’s a task that will require united action across the whole continent, but the movement in Greece could be the inspiration those of us who have thus far lagged behind need to get our act together.