Syriza in Power

Support for Syriza, the Greek Coalition of the Radical Left, has melted away. Despite its programme of support for the worst hit by the assault on living standards, polls show the party with just 15.5% backing, lagging way behind the right-wing New Democracy which is on 33%.

Since the 2009 crash, household wealth is down by 40%, pensions slashed by as much as 50%, unemployment at 22% is the highest in Europe, youth unemployment 45%, the country’s economic output has contracted by a devastating 26%.

In July 2015, 61.3% had voted ‘no’ to more austerity in a referendum on harsh bailout terms. Unlike the British adherence to its much closer referendum result, the Greek government gave into demands from the dark powers defending the stability of the global capitalist economy and overrode the democratic will of the people.

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who’d been committed to rejecting austerity, was the first casualty. The alternative threatened for Greece was a forced exit from the euro and possibly the European Union, with even worse consequences for the Greek people, or so it appeared.

A new election isn’t due until 2019. Prime minister Alexis Tsipras, hanging on to power – if that’s what he has – is hoping that sales of Greek debt on the international bond market will buy time until the brutal terms of the current, third, bailout run out and his government can begin to reverse the damage.

It’s a false optimism, however. Greece’s debt is expected to soar even further, nearing the stratosphere, and a fourth bailout looks inevitable. There’s no end in sight to the misery for the people of Greece who voted for Syriza again in 2015 in a snap election even after Tsipras was forced into accepting the Troika’s terms.

For his short election campaign Tsipras needed to find new candidates.

On 5 September 2015, after more than 40 years based in London, as an academic in the field of human rights, Costas Douzinas, professor of law and director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, was persuaded to stand. By the 20th of the month, much to most people’s surprise, he was elected as MP for the port city of Piraeus.

After just two more weeks he was elected Chair of the House Standing Committee on Defence and Foreign Relations. Despite Prime Minister Tsipras’ reversal of the July referendum, Syriza was back. Chastened, in a coalition with a right wing, nationalist party but determined to fight on.

In his new book, Syriza in Power, Douzinas describes himself as “an accidental politician”, never seeking or expecting public office.

Jeremy Corbyn’s political trajectory – trades unionist, local councillor, life-long socialist could hardly be more different. A week after the Greek election which took Douzinas into government, much to most people’s surprise, Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party.

But the two are connected by more than just the coincidence of timing. Much more. A strange kind of symmetry, perhaps. Both acquired their new positions on the crest of the wave of opposition to the years of post-crash austerity. Both favour a new kind of social democratic, reform-driven socialism.

Douzinas may not have been an elected representative, but he had been writing against the neo-liberal order and its programme of austerity for quite some time. And he was invited to speak to the Syntagma Square occupation in 2011. So more than just an observer, or commentator.

You can find many of his articles in the Guardian all the way back to December 2008 – when a wave of occupations and demonstrations had broken out all over the country. Earlier versions of much of the material for the book have appeared and can be read elsewhere – in English on openDemocracy for example, or for readers of Greek, in Efimerida Syntakton, the cooperative Newspaper of Journalists. It is good – and very timely – to see the whole collection accessibly in print – though many months have passed since it was rewritten for publication.

Douzinas intends his account of events, and his analysis of them – written in the midst of a state of emergency – for those on the newly emerging Left, so that they can learn from Syria’s experience of political practice. Being in a left-leaning, parliamentary government struggling in and against a hostile world of neo-liberal capitalist interests – not least the Troika’s coup – is certainly an experience worth recounting.

Syriza is in government, for sure, but it isn’t – as the book’s title suggests – “in power’”. At best it is struggling for power, against the state as it appears in Greece, in Europe, and against the needs and interests of global capitalist corporations advanced through lobby groups, free trade deals and armed interventions.

In 27 short chapters, Douzinas deploys all the tools at his disposal in his reflections and self-reflections. He calls on psychoanalysts and philosophers alive and dead, and, taking in many, disparate questions, at this moment of historical transition, assembles them as components of a theory of the left in the 21st century.

As well as the short history of Syriza itself and the contradictions it faces, among the many questions Douzinas packs into the book’s pages are: the nature of resistance, the history of Greece since the end of the 1949 civil war, the philosophy of history, the future of Europe, Grexit and Brexit, and a passionate defence of the Greek hospitality for the million refugees arriving on its islands.

There’s something else that Labour under Corbyn has in common with Syriza. Late in 2016, says Douzinas, the Greek government launched a major public debate and consultation about a full-scale amendment of the constitution, (though there’s little evidence of it in the media). Labour’s 2017 election manifesto proposes something similar: “to establish a Constitutional Convention to examine and advise on reforming of the way Britain works at a fundamental level”.

Douzinas goes further. He says that wide public debate should lead to pan-European peoples’ congress, a pan-European constituent assembly. He says the “Left must reconfigure and energise popular power outside the formal rules of the Union”.

There’s much of interest in Douzina’s reflections. Corbyn and all of his supporters would do well to take advantage of his labours. What’s even more interesting, perhaps, is what is missing.

Other than in the form of the abstract “demos” the people who brought Syriza into government hardly make an appearance in the book. After 40 years abroad, it’s hardly surprising that Douzinas has little, if any, connection with the people he supposedly represents.

And he won’t be getting any closer inside the parliamentary meeting rooms, nor in Birkbeck, as he commutes back and forth to London. As he tells us, the only Greeks who know who he is are those on the island where he’s spent his idyllic holidays for the last 25 years.

The huge energy, optimism and determination of the 2011 Greek spring, the series of general strikes, the occupation of the squares, the popular assembly that arose spontaneously outside the parliament building in Syntagma square, all this has been frittered away, suffocated by subordination to the Troika. Firefighters without contracts, and museum staff continue to protest, but it’s all to no avail.

The lessons are clear: for the Greeks in the home of democracy, and for people everywhere, preparations for reconstituting state and society so that the people really do have power can’t be postponed.

Syriza in Power, Costas Douzinas, Polity Press, 2017 £14.99

Review: How Varoufakis’ dream turned into a nightmare

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