Syriza’s emphatic victory in the Greek general election last week has seen many British left wing politicians and commentators embark on a series of gruesome little personal victory laps, as though the outcome of a vote in that small Mediterranean country represents some kind of teaching moment for the sixth largest economy in the world.
These delusions have generally taken one of two forms: either the hubristic belief that Syriza’s electoral success somehow lays bare the inherent shortcomings of capitalism in general, or that the installation of Alexis Tsipras as Greece’s new prime minister represents some long-awaited turning point in the fortunes of the European political left. Both of these exercises in wishful thinking are just plain wrong.
The leftists just about have a point, so long as one is content to think very simplistically and superficially about an urgent, festering problem. This line of argument basically says “Austerity is bad, and now that a strongly anti-austerity party has achieved electoral success elsewhere in Europe, all of our arguments in favour of increasing government spending levels forever have been vindicated”.
There is no shortage of this pound shop pseudo-intellectual grandstanding on display at the moment, from many of the usual suspects in the Labour Party and their sympathisers in the media. The Times of London reports:
Labour MPs have leapt on the success of a radical left-leaning party in the Greek elections by demanding that Ed Miliband reject austerity. A former cabinet minister backed the group, which released a signed statement aimed at persuading the Labour leader to pledge significant state investment in the economy and jobs, instead of backing swingeing public cuts.
Among their other demands were calls for the railways to be renationalised once their franchises expire and for trade unions to play an enhanced role, in order to combat “excessive corporate power” …
The group of 15 leftist MPs were given a boost by Peter Hain, the veteran Labour MP and party grandee, who made a separate intervention yesterday that echoed their sentiments. Mr Hain said that the capitalism that dominates today “require[s] far more radical responses than the neoliberal, right-wing orthodoxy of the post banking -crisis era could ever provide”.
Rejecting calls for “more cuts to cure ‘the deficit, stupid’,” the former Northern Ireland and work and pensions secretary also tweeted his support for Syriza: “Welcome, historic Greek voter blow to austerity also boost for anti-austerity case in Britain.”
Unfortunately, this adolescent-level analysis fails to recognise that Syriza’s victory has done nothing to actually solve the intractable problems faced by Greece.
Being elected on a vehemently anti-austerity platform is one thing, but actually coming up with a politically feasible alternative beyond demanding debt renegotiations (from creditor nations in no mood to compromise) is quite another. Alexis Tsipras has overcome the first hurdle, but has given very little indication as to how he intends to clear the second, higher bar.
Furthermore, “austerity” as experienced in Britain is nothing like the real version suffered by Greece. Calling the Greek situation an “humanitarian disaster”, as Alexis Tsipras did following his election victory, is no great exaggeration, as Camilla Cavendish notes at The Sunday Times:
The humanitarian disaster in Greece — and that is what it is, with a 26% unemployment rate and formerly proud shopkeepers sleeping on the streets — is, of course, partly the country’s own fault. Successive governments have failed miserably to tackle cronyism, corruption, inefficiency and over-regulation.
Yet it is quite clear that Greece’s debt obligations have become impossible to meet. The Teutonic view that you must pay back whatever you borrow, whatever the cost that imposes on your people, has locked Greece into a one-way street to poverty that could end, if nothing is done, in real extremism.
We would all like everyone to live within their means. The reality, sadly, is that humans are fallible. The Greeks are plainly not going to repay external debts that now amount to 175% of GDP. It is worth remembering that 70 years ago, Germany could not repay its debts either. The 1953 London Debt Agreement that set Germany on course to become one of the world’s foremost economies was based on the understanding that, sometimes, debt relief is the only way to move forward.
Overwrought comparisons with the Greek dystopia made by pampered British leftists whose only gripe is the lowering of an already-generous benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 per year – still far more money than many working families subsist on without complaint – boggle the mind with their misplaced priorities. Let these people live in Greece for a year before they rail against the cruelty of the British welfare state and the coalition government’s spending plans.
For the benefit of anyone who has only been exposed to Labour Party propaganda on austerity and the deficit, here is what has actually happened to British government spending from 2010 to the present day:
If these modest restraints on government spending are causing the British people such hardship and pain, who is really to blame? It is not the supposedly-heartless Tories, but rather successive Labour governments who have deliberately and knowingly increased the number of people dependent on employment or benefits from the state, leaving them brutally exposed to the impact of spending restraints in the wake of the financial crisis.
Those who presided over the inexorable growth of the British state are responsible for any hardship and pain now being experienced, and should feel shame for what they have done.
But it is not just the politicians. Following the formation of the Syriza-led coalition government in Greece, every left-wing organisation this side of Athens has been taking to their airwaves to perform an (undeserved) victory lap. Semi-Partisan Sam recently received this Syriza-inspired fundraising email from The People’s Assembly, the British anti-austerity outfit most famous for contriving to organise a demonstration in which 50,000 noisy protesters marched through Central London without attracting any press coverage whatsoever:
The tide of austerity is turning! The Greek elections show a growing thirst across Europe for a change to cuts, privatisation and policies that only benefit those at the top. It shows there’s huge potential for change here in Britain too and this year the People’s Assembly, Trade Unions and campaigns have a plan of action to make this happen.
And this is nothing compared to the exuberant triumphalism of Owen Jones, who sees Syriza’s victory in Greece as vindication for all his rose-tinted arguments in favour of dragging Britain back to the 1970s:
This was not just an election victory: this was a historic watershed. From the late 1980s onwards, the Soviet totalitarian satellite states began to collapse. The end of the cold war was cleverly spun into the final, absolute victory of not just capitalism, but its most undiluted, rapacious form: “The End of History” – the sense that even the most democratic left project was somehow buried in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Deprived of any organised ideological counterweight, capitalism was liberated to chip away at all the constraints that had been placed upon it: like nationalisation, progressive taxation, workers’ rights, social security and regulation. The culmination of this hubris was the financial collapse, as triumphant free-market capitalism went into meltdown. But the left did not exist as a viable mass political force in the west: its battered remnants could get together a few placards complaining about the bankers, but it had no coherent alternative to offer.
Syriza’s victory is the biggest challenge to the era of “There Is No Alternative” yet. Syriza are presented as “far left”, while those they replace are presumably “moderates”. It is a fascinating insight into what the western media regard as moderation: plunging over half of young people into unemployment, almost doubling child poverty, stripping away basic social protections. The politics of despair peddled by elites mean you are supposed to regard such injustices as inevitable, irresistible, impossible to overcome. But the re-emergence of the left as a political force – at least offering the possibility of a different sort of society – represents a substantial punch in the face to an economic order that has prevailed for a generation.
Only Owen Jones could gaze at the smoking wreck of the Greek economy and see a failure of capitalism, rather than the inevitable outcome of corruption, protectionism and massive denial on the part of generations of Greek voters, who allowed themselves to be duped for so long by the false promises of their political elites.
What the left neglect to mention in their victory speeches is the fact that Greece’s current hardship is not a result of unbridled capitalism and the hated free market, but rather a direct consequence of punitive, Treaty of Versailles-style terms dictated by the very undemocratic, unelected and unaccountable pan-national institutions that they love so dearly – most notably the EU. Greece’s pain has nothing to so with a failure of capitalism and everything to do with that country’s deep rooted uncompetitiveness combined with a flawed currency union and an undemocratic coup d’état by the EU-led troika.
But why let the truth stand in the way of a shiny new argument for failed socialist dogma? Undermining the nation state in favour of undemocratic international institutions like the European Union is a Good Thing, according to these people, because patriotism is so twentieth century. And imposing a single currency on nineteen economically diverse and ultimately incompatible countries must be defended to the hilt, because it is all part of the “ever-closer union” that the people of Europe really want, even if they don’t know it yet.
And what to do when popular dissent bubbles over and the suffering people of Europe say “Enough!”?
Why, just take the credit for the popular revolt, and blame the rest on the evil capitalists.