“It’s so bad families can no longer afford to even bury their dead. Bodies lie unclaimed at public hospitals so that the local municipality can bury them.” That was how a director of a funeral parlor described the poverty in Greece after the austerity measures were introduced several years ago. Rebelling against the most harsh cuts in jobs and income, Greeks elected the radical Syriza Party into office in January of this year. The Syriza leadership was committed to the promise of reversing the cuts. That was what they were elected into office for.
In a previous article written in February of this year, we described the weakness of the approach of the leadership of Syriza, including the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Already then, this weakness was revealed by his reversing course on the issue of privatization – in that case, the privatization of the Port of Pireus. The main weakness was that the Syriza leadership had no serious focus on mobilizing the Greek working class, nor the working class of the rest of Europe. There was no explanation of how the cuts in living standards to Greek workers would simply force workers in other European Union countries to also face similar cuts. (As a result, most workers in the wealthier EU countries fell prey to the capitalist propaganda that if Greek workers didn’t take cuts, they – the other EU workers – would have to pay for it.) Instead, in order to try to smooth things over, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras started calling the sharks who are running the governments of Europe (Hollande in France, Merkel in Germany, etc.) “partners”. The three major killer institutions – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund – had been known as the hated “troika” in Greece. Tsipras rebranded them as “the institutions.”
Economic Recovery and Competition Between Workers
Meanwhile, matters became even clearer. The slight uptick in the Spanish and Portuguese economies had been due to the cuts workers experienced there. (See this explanation.) These cuts meant that greater profits were available there. In fact, there had been a slight upturn in the Greek economy in the early part of this year for the exact same reason. Now, the representatives of European and international capital were sensing the opportunity to make the cuts in Greece permanent, thereby opening the door to driving through similar cuts throughout the European Union. The fact that the cuts in one country increases the pressure for cuts everywhere else was ignored by Tsipras as well, evidently, as by most of the rest of the Syriza leadership. It was not used as a basis for really trying to rally the rest of the European working class to oppose “austerity” throughout the region, and beyond.
Like a pack of wolves smelling blood, the representatives of European capital moved in for the kill. Round after round of fruitless “negotiations” followed, in which the heads of state in the EU held firm. What were the leaders of Syriza – Prime Minister Tsipras and Finance Minister Varoufakis – saying? We will never know, because as is typical in capitalist diplomacy, the talks were held in secret.
“Grexit” and Capital Flooding Out
Meanwhile, payments on the Greek debt were looming as was the increasing possibility that Greece would be thrown out of the European Union (known as the “Grexit”). If that happens, the capital will rush out of Greece in an absolute flood. Already, it is reported that every day 59 businesses are closing in Greece costing 613 jobs and 22 million euros every 24 hours, and many of those that remain are busy sending their money out of the country.
Tsipras Cries “Uncle”
So it was that early last week, Tsipras cried “uncle”. He submitted a proposal for raising the retirement age, cutting pensions for the poorest retirees, and increasing the Value Added Tax (VAT – a form of a sales tax). Naturally enough, the representatives of European capital weren’t even satisfied with that. They wanted to completely discredit Syriza and thereby discourage any thought among workers in Greece or anywhere else that it was possible to fight back. So they demanded even more.
Tsipras commented, “We are carrying out people’s dignity as well as the aspirations of all Europeans. We cannot ignore this responsibility. It is not a matter of ideological stubbornness. It has to do with democracy.” What do the representatives of capital care about “dignity” or democracy? And as for the workers, “dignity” is represented first and foremost by a plate of food, a roof over one’s head and a future for one’s children — and a strategy to fight for that.
Now Tsipras has announced plans to put the latest package of blood-letting, known as “austerity”, before the Greek people in the form of a referendum scheduled for July 5. One government representative, Interior Minister Nikos Voutsis, has said the government will recommend a “no” vote. On the other hand, Tsipras commented that “Greece is and will remain an undetachable part of Europe, and Europe an undetachable part of Greece.” It’s unclear what he means by that, but all recent opinion polls show that the majority of Greeks do not want to leave the EU. However, a “no” vote could very well mean exactly that.
Conscious active union members in the US have experience with similar contract votes here. After months of fruitless negotiating, the union leadership comes back to the members with a contract proposal that involves sharp cuts. Little or nothing was done during all that time to really build on the power of the members and the working class as a whole. Sensing which way the wind is blowing, seeing similar cuts being pushed through elsewhere, the more timid workers win the day and the contract passes.
Isn’t there a serious danger that a similar situation could develop in Greece?
Threat of Xenophobia and Racism
Meanwhile, the immigration issue is moving to the forefront throughout Europe, and most particularly in Greece, where tens of thousands of people fleeing absolute starvation and war in Africa and parts of the Arab world. This wave of immigration has combined with general failure to mount a real class struggle against the austerity throughout the EU to
create a widespread anti-immigrant mood. Ironically, it is strongest in Greece, where 70% are reported to believe that immigrants are a burden on the country. The terrorist attacksof the reactionary, bigoted anti-worker Islamic fundamentalist groups of just yesterday (June 26) are calculated to exacerbate the situation. As explained in this article on domestic terrorism the rise of these groups has a lot to do with the defeat of the Arab Spring. A similar defeat in Greece could have a similar effect. As a retired factory worker in Greece said, “if Tsipras doesn’t do anything, the only ones left are Golden Dawn.” (Golden Dawn is the anti-immigrant and racist fascist party in Greece.)
This threat is real. One possibility is that workers in Greece will move forward and conclude that what is needed is even more determined action on the part of Greek workers, linked with the workers throughout the region – from the EU to Turkey, Syria and Iraq, etc. This would require a program that includes taking the banks into public ownership under workers control and management as a first step. How else, for example, can Greek workers prevent the current rush to the exit of capital in Greece from becoming an absolute flood? But a program like this, and a plan of action doesn’t exist just in the ether; it is carried in the minds of people and it has to be organized. Is there such an organization – however small at present – in Greece that is capable of ultimately winning the day? We have don’t know.
If not, and if one doesn’t develop quickly, then the threat of Golden Dawn could become a reality. Not that it would win power, but it could become a real force.