What happens when a public entity – a school district, a local government or even a national government – is bled dry by the capitalists? It is taken over by “technical experts”, meaning direct representatives of the banksters, who use this “patient critical” situation to bleed it even further. “Kick ‘em when they’re down” is the idea. To be specific, this means more wage cuts, more cuts in public services, attacks on union rights, attacks on the youth, and more privatization.
That’s what happened when the Oakland Unified School District went “bust” and was placed under control of the State of California back in 2003. More recently, the entire city of Detroit was put under the same gun. And now? Now it’s an entire country – Greece – that they’re trying to do this to.
“Like taking a bone from a pit bull”
In previous articles, we described some of the background to the election of the radical Syriza Party in Greece. Syriza pledged a reversal of all the austerity measures – privatization, wage and pension cuts, elimination of union bargaining rights, etc. But they were and are faced with a problem: How to get money. It’s like trying to pry a bone out of
the mouth of a pit bull; you need a lot of strength to get it. Sweet talking or mere threats in words accomplishes absolutely nothing. (This writer knows. He has a dog that’s part pit!)
And that was and is the problem for the new Syriza regime, as represented by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. Round Europe they went, hoping to isolate the more hard line governments, especially the Germans, and create a division in the European capitalist class. But why should any wing of the capitalist class really back off as long as it felt it was in the driver’s seat, as long as it didn’t feel threatened? The Spanish, Portuguese and Irish regimes – which are cooperating with the same austerity programs in their own countries – have a reason to stay the course. If Greece escapes the clutches of the banksters, then this would encourage support for left wing opposition parties like “Podemos” in Spain, for example. Meanwhile, the Greek regime was running out of cash. Literally – at least if it was going to make its loan payments.
So it was that Tsipras & Co. met with their counterparts last week and arranged a deal: They would backtrack on their election promises (the “Thessoloniki Statement”) in return for getting a new loan. A part of that agreement included submitting a new “reform” plan this last Tuesday (Feb. 24) for approval. That has been submitted and tentative approval seems in the offing. The plan includes ending its opposition to privatization, especially of the Port of Pireus (just outside Athens), which will likely be taken over either by Cosco, a Chinese company, or Maersk, a Danish one, and which surely will lead to further layoffs and wage cuts; increased taxes, including a “Value Added Tax” or VAT, which is a form of sales tax and, as such, is completely regressive; backtracking on raising the minimum wage and restoring union collective bargaining rights.
In any struggle of the working class you have to negotiate with the enemy unless the outright overthrow of capitalism is under way. That’s just the reality. And no struggle is guaranteed of victory. But to paint a partial defeat as a victory is a serious mistake. That’s what Varoufakis did, when he commented, “Greece has turned a page… We are going to write our own script on the reforms that need to be enacted.” That is simply untrue; they agreed that any steps they take will be agreed to by the Troika. Along with this, the Varoufakis/Tsipris team changed their wording. Previously they had correctly made the Troika (of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF) absolutely hated in Greece. So what did Tsipris/Varoufakis do? They rebranded the Troika as “the Institutions.” And as for these vicious capitalist regimes like the German or Finnish ones? They are now “partners”.
Meanwhile, the European capitalists are celebrating. Wolfgang Schauble, the hard line counterpart to Greece’s Varoufakis, commented, “The Greeks certainly will have a difficult time explaining the deal to their voters….Being in government is a date with
reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream.” In other words, he and his allies are going to do everything they can to rub these concessions in and, thereby, weaken Syriza. And these are the ones Tsipras/Varoufakis call “partners”.
Participating in Elections
Some will claim that these retreats show that the movement of workers and youth and anti-capitalists in general should never participate in capitalist elections because if elected you will inevitably sell out. This claim ignores the heroic examples of people like Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht, revolutionary members of the German parliament who opposed Germany’s entry into WW I (a colonialist war) and were ultimately murdered by the German capitalists as a result. It ignores the role of socialists like Eugene Debs in the US, whose campaigns for President before and during WW I did a lot to help popularize socialism and who won nearly a million votes for that office from the prison cell, where he was placed for opposing US entry into that war.
No, the real problem is that Tsipris & co. came into office with no real plan for mobilizing the Greek working class and youth and using that as a springboard to help build a region-wide struggle against austerity. Their whole strategy rested on the belief that austerity was bad for capitalism, that increased income for Greek workers would help the Greek economy recover and, by inference, that this would increase the profits of the capitalists. This is like the union leadership, who thinks that the workers and the employers have a common interest and therefore never really mobilizes their members or the working class in general.
Austerity: What It’s Really About
Austerity never was about helping the Greek economy recover; it was about cutting labor costs so low in Greece that it would be more profitable for international capitalists like Cosco and Maersk (and others that are looking to take over Greek electricity and telephone services). They will then use this to threaten the German and other workers, “you see what’s happening? If you don’t accept more cuts, you’re going to lose even more jobs to the Greeks.” And while it’s true that austerity helped accelerate the rate of collapse of the Greek economy, increasing social spending is not a solution either. After all, who’s going to pay for it? If it’s the capitalists, they will send their money out of Greece. And if it’s the workers, then it’s merely shifting the money from one pocket to another. And if it’s by simply amping up the printing presses – that is, printing more money (which would only be possible if Greece leaves the eurozone), then it will lead to rapid inflation.
Mobilizing the Working Class
Instead, the Syriza regime should have focused its efforts on mobilizing the Greek working class, including occupying and taking over the banks. They should have used this renewed movement as a selling point to the rest of the European working class, explaining that the austerity in Greece will be used to drive down living standards throughout the European Union and beyond.
Racism and Terrorism
There’s another issue to consider: Greece is the entry point for many thousands, possibly millions, of refugees from Africa, Western Asia and Eastern Europe. It has a large immigrant population of Africans, Syrians, Libyans, etc. These immigrants came under physical assault from the Greek fascist (literally) Golden Dawn party. To its credit, one of the first steps Syriza took was to pass a measure granting citizenship to the children of all these asylum seekers. But a lot more is needed. Don’t forget that the refugees from many of those countries – such as Syria and Libya – suffered from the same austerity programs imposed in their home country that the troika is pushing in Greece. And they surely are suffering from it as immigrants in Greece.
Recent years have seen an increase in racism and sectarianism on all sides. On the one side, this includes Greece’s Golden Dawn, on the other the rise of Islamic fundamentalist groups like ISIS (or IS). If Syriza were to really organize a widespread class-based fightback, this would have global implications; it would be a huge step in undermining these racist and terrorist groups and the mentality that leads to their support.
It’s impossible to know from here how things will shake out in this struggle. Some of the plan submitted by Tsipras/Varoufakis has been somewhat vague and they might not go as far as European capital wants them to. The IMF along with a wing of German capital is pushing for even more definitive commitments for “reform”, meaning austerity. Over 80% of Greeks are reported as supporting this deal, but what the real mood on the ground is we don’t know. And what’s the basis for this support? Is it that the concessions aren’t clearly understood (yet), or has a temporary mood of discouragement increased due to the lack of a clear strategy of the Syriza leadership? There is a left in Syriza that is opposing this deal. How strong are they and is the deal be rejected by the Greek parliament either now or further down the road? A lot is unanswered.
One thing we do know for sure: Today, capitalism is more global than ever before. So are all the issues, from economic survival to police brutality to racism. Greece in many ways is a focal point for the struggle on all these fronts. Socialists and revolutionaries in the United States should pay close attention to what is happening in Greece and lend whatever support they can to the struggle there. Their struggle is our struggle and any victory (or defeat) they experience will affect our movement here.