In January 2015 there was dancing in the streets of Athens as a left-wing anti-austerity party, Syriza, a ‘coalition of the radical left’, made up of various left and Green groups, Eurocommunists and some Trotskyists, had just won the Greek elections. There was rejoicing too amongst like-minded people outside Greece. The fightback against austerity was to begin. Another policy was possible.
The new government was going to end in Greece the austerity that governments everywhere had been imposing in the slump that followed the Crash of 2008. It would do this, according to John Milios, billed as Syriza’s chief economist, by promoting growth ‘through a fiscal stimulus, targeted at lower incomes in order to boost their spending power’ (Guardian, 23 December 2014).
They never got the chance to try, not that this warmed-up Keynesianism would have worked. Holders of Greek government bonds, afraid of losing too much of their money, insisted, through a Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF, that the new Greek government continue, and even increase, austerity.
Syriza called a referendum in July on the terms that they and the previous government had been offered. A 61 percent majority voted to reject them. As a ploy to strengthen their negotiating hand, it didn’t work. The bondholders still demanded their pound of flesh, and the Troika called Syriza’s bluff.
The government had a choice – between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. They could accept the terms or reject them and go it alone. Either way, they would have to continue the imposition of austerity as, if it wasn’t under direct Troika pressure, it would be under the indirect pressure of the world market. The government chose the first option on the grounds that it would allow them some wiggle room whereas the second would be an unpredictable adventure.
This wasn’t what leftists outside Greece wanted. In accordance with their fanciful view that workers can be bounced into ending capitalism, they urged the government to adopt ‘radical anti-capitalist’ measures and, in the face of any resistance, to ‘mobilise the masses.’ But a second general election in September, which returned Syriza to office, suggested that most of its voters accepted the government’s choice. The ‘masses’ were not for mobilising.
It’s a familiar pattern. A left-wing government promising to improve things for people is enthusiastically elected, comes up against capitalist reality that profits and conditions for profit-making must come first, then either changes its policy or continues and provokes an economic crisis and is voted out.
Syriza changed its policy and so avoided immediate eviction. Four years later, however, and with the Greek economy in a less parlous state, enough voters deserted it last month to elect an openly pro-capitalist party to run the country. The Syriza government turned out to be an interlude during which it served as a repair gang for Greek capitalism, stabilising its economic and political situation so that normal service could eventually be resumed. Yet another failure of reformism, to add to the long list. Reformers from everywhere take note.