Greece: The First Days Of A Left-Wing Government

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It was becoming more obvious over the last two years.

The conservative government of Greece, a strange coalition between former bitter enemies – New Democracy and The Socialist Party – was paralysed by the inability to deliver on their own promises.

Since 2012 the only economic measures they could impose were more taxes and extra ‘contributions’, and finally a Thatcherite poll-tax on just about everything built in the country: from a small apartment to a sumptuous mansion or even to a dog-house in a villager’s backyard!

When Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde visited Australia last year she talked with pride about the first ever Greek budget in surplus since 1943, and she was confident for the continuing success of the government. However, as an old Greek politician said: “where statistics prosper, humans live in misery.” And that was the case indeed.

More money in the government coffers simply meant less money for the real economy; instead of pumping cash into the market, they plundered the savings of the vast majority of the working people, or the unemployed. Most Greeks became ‘working poor’. In order to survive, even if they were employed, they had to dig deep into their own savings or rely on their grandmother’s pension in order to live and pay their taxes.

Meanwhile the superrich simply transferred their money to Switzerland, paying the minimum of taxes to a level equal to that of a proletarian in the western suburbs of the Greek capital. It is like thinking that a mansion in Vaucluse has the same market value as an apartment in Parramatta. The contradiction was glaring and could not be justified by any rhetorical firework about ‘national emergency’. When statistical wizardry failed, dangerous politics entered.

For years, as a result of frustration and government inaction, an extreme right-wing party, Golden Dawn, started becoming a considerable player in the political arena. Their political agenda was no real agenda: they have nothing to say about the economy except they will nationalise everything; nothing about investments and growth; nothing about the national debt or the international obligations of the country.

Greek's celebrate the win of SYRIZA last week, a left-wing political party that has promised to re-negotiate the nation's crippling international debt.

They had nothing to say about the actual problems of the state. Their only policy resonating with large numbers of the population was their anti-immigration agenda, ultra-nationalistic rhetoric, anti-Semitism, homophobia and overt thuggery against weak immigrants. And they spruiked the superiority of the Greek race, Greek culture and the Orthodox Church.

With their ritual theatricality and torch-bearing ceremonies, Golden Dawn organised rallies against the presence of immigrants and bashed defenceless people without ever being prosecuted or, in many cases, even being found by police.

The government kept Golden Dawn firmly in the public consciousness, and used them to terrorize voters with the theory of the ‘two extremes’. On one hand there were the extreme right wing fascists, on the other the extreme Left wing party of SYRIZA.

The visibility of the Golden Dawn can be attributed to the sinister yet unpredictable policies of manipulation through the media by the government, especially by the New Democracy party. Leader Anthony Samaras is himself an extreme right wing nationalist whose political agenda for decades has consisted of one item alone: to not allow the former Yugoslav Macedonia to be called Macedonia at all. Around this, and around his profound reverence for Virgin Mary, he built a political career which eventually landed him the job of prime minister (in 2012), promising an anti-austerity program which, after his election, he simply recanted.

In reality, Samaras was a consummate populist, espousing a strange blend of Mussolinian ethno-populism which remains the main ideology of all ruling elites of left and right in the country since 1980. The Golden Dawn however were too fanatical and too aggressive to be tamed or controlled.

After the assassination of a rapper two years ago, their strange deposition began in front of the television cameras. The media played a dubious role in this: all 12 national stations function under ‘temporary licenses’, so their very existence depends on the good will of the government. Both PASOK and New Democracy have used this implicit method of blackmailing in order to silence genuine criticism and independent journalism in the public sphere.

The channel-owners were of course keen to go along with any government that gave them endless loans (not repayable), tax exemptions and exclusive interviews with the prime minister and his ministers.  The collusion between the media and the previous government reached the level of an obscene insult to common intelligence.

Consequently, Samaras allied himself to the extreme right wing, in his attempt to take the votes of the disaffected Golden Down supporters. His schizophrenic behaviour can be clearly seen when two weeks ago he took part in the march for secular democracy in Paris, and yet upon his return he started talking about Christian icons in schools and the fear of de-Christianisation. Fear and scaremongering were indeed the words describing his late policies.

Within this context, he stopped the legislation for the naturalisation of immigrants born in the country; after 20 or 25 years, people born in Greece, paying taxes, studying at schools, speaking only Greek and being active members of its social life, cannot vote, because according to Samaras and his ideology, ‘they have no strong biological bond with the country’.

The biologisation of identity has also been identified with implicit homophobic policies and some strange statements about racial purity and, of course, the Christian faith, with which they mean the Orthodox Church.

The collusion between the previous government and certain conservative bishops around the country was also another obscene expression of the politicisation of the Church and the nefarious role it plays as an instrument for political demagoguery.

As a consummate manipulator, Samaras accelerated the elections, by bringing forward the election of the President of the republic, thinking that he would scare voters away from SYRIZA. All scenarios of the ‘day after the poll’ were apocalyptically presented by the media on a daily basis: the collapse of the banking system, the exit from the Eurozone, the confiscation of private property by the communists, the de-Christianisation of the culture, persecutions and much more.

No positive policy was articulated, whereas the arrogance and the narcissism of Samaras reached pathological dimensions. “I am not going to talk with him…” he said dismissively about the leader of the opposition, Alexis Tsipras, when invited to take part in the customary television debate before the elections.

Samaras was always a bad loser, as we say Down Under, full of resentment and bitterness — despite his constant supplications to the Virgin.

On the other hand, SYRIZA understood that the government’s incompetence and the public frustration gave them a unique opportunity to gain power. Austerity didn’t work anymore.

The European leaders, especially the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, misunderstood the potential of a non-productive and non-entrepreneurial economy. As a small market, Greece could not compete with the other major European countries, especially after participating in the common currency.

Indeed, thanks to disastrous models of development implemented by the two major parties, between 1985 and 2007, the country today is practically de-industrialised and the main sectors of financial activity once again became the services sector (tourism) and agriculture, as it was in the 60s and 70s. On the other hand, the Euro, one could claim, is a victim to Germany’s success — and Greece is probably the main side effect of this.

SYRIZA believes that only through enhanced state intervention the economy could become productive again. But what they propose is not more involvement of the state in investment through public works, rather they seek the appointment of more public servants, or taking back those who lost their job.

The idea of keeping more people in non-productive positions is extremely strange especially when expressed by people who claim to be internationally acclaimed professors. The state is based on extensive bureaucracy and endless layers of red-tape administration which make investments almost impossible, time-consuming and in the end non-existent. It is a form of bureaucratic statism, based on centralisation and therefore lack of transparency — an extreme form of the French economic dirigisme, which amounts to a parochial form of state capitalism.

On the other hand the private sector has suffered immensely during the last five years: almost all unemployment comes from there, while all public servants, most of whom were appointed under non-transparent interventions, enjoy privileges and early retirement packages that the ordinary employee cannot even imagine.

SYRIZA’s economic policies have been characterised as ‘mild Keynesianism’, theoretically based on a model of mixed economy with the private sector being the central factor in economic activity with the state intervening to regulate the market in period of recession. So far we haven’t seen anything about the private sector by the financial brains of SYRIZA; the new minister for the economy has made many statements of re-hiring cleaners but nothing about the reactivation of the industry.

During the pre-election period SYRIZA promised everything to everybody; restoring public servants to their position, taking back all those who were sacked, restoring minimum wage, establishing a new state owned aeroplane carrier, abolishing all poll-taxes, de-privatising all public assets which were sold to investors and many more.

Their charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras (PICTURED BELOW), at least untainted by the corrupt past, went to the elections with the slogan “Hope is Coming!”, and of course he won. His populist rhetoric made him extremely appealing and gave a sense of empowerment to the humiliated voters. Yet when the future prime minister declared that “we will beat the drums and the international markets will dance” he simply showed his economic provincialism, his wishful disregard of globalisation and the actual ignorance of the origin of economic investment in the country.

The problems can be seen almost a week after the elections. SYRIZA won 149 seats in the parliament, so they needed two more in order to have the majority for a confidence vote. They formed a coalition with an extreme right-wing party, the Independent Greeks, with a strong anti-European agenda, anti-immigration policies, anti-Semitic statements, and ultra-nationalistic rhetoric.

Their leader Mr Panos Kamenos, now minister of defence, made history three years ago when he declared that Greeks were sprayed from the air with chemicals, by the known unknowns, in order to be sterilised. He believes that he holds the monopoly of patriotism, and all those who don’t agree with him are foreign agents. Another prominent member of Kamenos’ party accused the prime minister of Luxemburg of establishing the union of ‘European Faggotry’ and not of ‘European Nations’.

The Independent Greeks also reject the naturalisation of immigrants born in the country, they rally passionately against multiculturalism and, of course, they are all praying fervently for protection and inspiration to the one and only Virgin Mary.

The new government also includes as its foreign minister an old Stalinist, Nikos Kotzias, who wrote extensively in the 80s against the Solidarity movement in Poland, while calling for the radical quashing of all revisionists even with blood, as he declared.

During the last 10 years, he worked with the ostensibly benevolent dynastic oligarch George A. Papandreou and became increasingly nationalistic, advocating a closer alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, together with many other ideologues from the Socialist party who articulated various beguiling theories about Greek exceptionalism.

Recently, Kotzias held some strange meetings with the ultra-fascists in Moscow, supporting Russia against Ukraine and actually worked together with the Golden Dawn people in the European Parliament to stop any action against Putin.

There are some other interesting personalities in the new government. Most of them from different parts of the political spectrum, from the extreme left to centre-right.

The new minister of Economics, a media darling of Freudian proportions, Mr Yanis Varoufakis, has the promising profile of a cosmopolitan socialite whose involvement with economics is through books, books and more conferences on books.

To this, we must add his endless high gossip about ‘what he said to that banker’ or to another high executive. His fans worship him, as he spends most of his time in front of the cameras constantly correcting himself about what he stated yesterday and insisting that he didn’t actually say it: he is the master of verbal ambiguity which confuses most journalists, who give up debating him in frustration by admitting that they misunderstood his previous statement.

It remains to be seen what Varoufakis’ plans for the economy will actually be. The game now is not an exercise on paper but about the reality of actual human beings. Let’s hope that fantasy will be replaced by the reality principle.

But it is too early to be critical or negative. Slavoj Žižek, a staunch supporter of SYRIZA, stated that “Le 25 Janvier 2015, nous sommes tous Grecs!" The victory of SYRIZA gives hope to many Europeans who feel disenfranchised and excluded from the political process: it expresses the revenge of the silent majorities who are called to obey to rules and regulations imposed in their name by oligarchic elites who have now become almost autonomous within the ever-increasing bureaucratic apparatuses of the European Union, and in their respective states.

It will offer a great opportunity to rethink the structural function of the European Union and its current model of governance, by redefining the legitimacy of its institutions. The solutions to the problems of Europe are more and not less Europe.

It is true that SYRIZA looks like a strange and contradictory political formation untried in matters of administration. The main problem of the Greek state is not its enormous debt: the debt is the consequence of something deeper. It is its institutional failure to safeguard democratic function through constitutional systems of checks and balances.

During the last 20-odd years, Greece was not a true democracy but a liberal oligarchy — and during the crisis, even the adjective ‘liberal’ was simply dropped. The previous prime minister visited the parliament only five times in three years: his contempt for all democratic process of accountability was obvious and showed the pathological authoritarianism of the individual; he was a man too small for the job, too narrow minded for his position.

This also indicates a permanent feature of the Greek political system: the identification of a party with its leader, the ultimate expression of proto-fascist politics.

If SYRIZA is to be successful, they must restore the credibility of the political system, the accountability of administration and the transparency of governance. The economy has collapsed because the state used it to buy votes and control all levels of political debate and dissent.

The identification of the governing party with the state is another serious problem that must be addressed.

The immunity from prosecution, even for the slightest misdemeanour by any serving politician, is another problem: ordinary citizens are trapped in a complex system of legal restrictions that apply to them, but not to any member of the parliament or their protégés.

Clientelism, favouritism, nepotism, constant abuse of power, absence of independent judiciary and politicised military forces are some of the problems the new government will have to face: will they be able to address some of them and implement practical solutions, based on consent and dialogue? Is the meaning of this beautiful Greek word, dialogue, forgotten in its own place of origin?

Finally they must introduce and impose the concept of secular citizenship in order to include the majority of people, living, working and creating within Greek society since 1991: the insistence on a biological blood and soil perception of identity is not simply dangerous, it will revert society to archaic and pre-modern strategies of nation-building instituting phobic and vulnerable identities. This, I believe, is one of the most significant tasks they must try to implement.

Despite my strong reservations, I hope that the experiment will be successful. We must think of Greece as a case of failed statehood which occasionally reached the level of a failed nationhood. The only nation-building strategy implemented in the country over the last 70 years was the fear of an external invasion, of the foreigner, of the other.

The Greek political system needed renewal and modernisation by discarding the five or six dynastic families who ruled the political sphere over the last 100 years. Let’s hope that the new power elites will learn how to govern on the job and will find the best possible solutions under the current adverse circumstances.

More than anything else, they have to remember that they are not the opposition anymore, and that they have to take decisions that will affect the lives of millions of people.

The Greeks voted bravely; and as one of their most successful entrepreneurs Aristotle Onassis said: “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.”

The model of a new risk society should be implemented in order to abolish the conformism and the stagnation that led to such a humiliating and pitiable state of affairs. Greek citizens deserve better.

* Vrasidas Karalis is a Professor of Modern Greek at the University of Sydney.

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