Capitalism and Democracy in Greece

There has been no paucity of allusions to Greek tragedy when discussing the current negotiations between Greece and its European creditors: Syriza caught between Scylla of austerity and the Charibdas of ‘Grexit’; Greece’s Sisyphean task of paying down its debt through contractionary austerity policies; the Pyrrhic victory of the no campaign in the austerity referendum; the marathon negotiations to secure the third bail-out, etc.

Yet, another often overlooked tragedy lies in Greece’s relationship between democracy and European integration. After decades of dictatorship, civil war and foreign occupation, mainstream political parties in Greece increasingly cast their lot with the European project as the best means of institutionalizing – and deepening – the democratic structures and processes that emerged out of the democratic transition in 1974. Today, in the context of the brutal ‘debt negotiations’ – in which there appears to be no real negotiations and little prospect of alleviating Greece’s debt – numerous commentators are pointing out the destruction of Greek democracy at the hands of undemocratic, financialized European institutions under the control of Germany and its allies. In the aftermath of the resounding No vote by the Greek people, the European institutions tabled an even more draconian series of reform measures as the basis for further negotiations regarding a bailout; at the same time, the ECB cut off the flow of money to Greek banks, essentially imposing capital controls on Greece, thereby strangling the Greek economy during the negotiations. As hospitals began to run out of medicine and factories ran out of fuel, Paul Mason of Channel 4 news likened the situation to a ‘sanctions regime’ similar to that imposed on Iran or Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has called the current ‘offer’ from the ‘institutions’ as a form of ‘post-modern occupation’ that resembles the Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919. The Huffington Post declared the recent ultimatum as a ‘coup’ against Greek democracy, and the Syriza government in particular. It is a ‘post-modern’ occupation because the occupiers employ banks instead of tanks. There was even speculation from Fox News that the IMF had called for Prime Minister Tsipras’ resignation (like in most cases, Fox got this wrong).

Like other countries in Southern Europe, Greece experienced a brief period of quasi-fascism under the authoritarian Metaxas regime of the 1930s and 1940s, a regime that was displaced by the events of WWII and the subsequent German occupation of Greece. As the Nazis were expelled by the predominantly left-wing resistance, Greece swapped one occupying power for another. The British, stepping into the breach opened up by a resistance movement that refrained from seizing power itself, empowered domestic collaborators of the Nazi occupation by integrating them into the new political order and began to persecute the left. A brutal civil war ensued in which scores of Greeks were killed.

The post-war period was one of ‘restricted democracy’ under right-wing political dominance and as a result, there was no real resolution to the political polarization endemic to Greek society. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) was outlawed and the Federation of Greek Workers (GSEE) was firmly under the thumb of the ruling party. Political instability resulted in a return to military rule under the regime of the Colonials between 1967 and 1974. With the restoration of democracy came the resurgence of an anti-imperialist and predominantly anti-European (in the form of the then European Community) Greek left, in the form of the KKE and the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). Meanwhile, the Eurocommunists, from which a significant tendency within Syriza is derived, broke from the KKE, ultimately embracing Europe (but that is getting a little ahead of the story). Unlike today, PASOK was a more radical socialist party that, in contrast to the KKE, was not aligned with Moscow. Rather, PASOK aligned itself with ‘Third Worldism’, viewing Greece as a semi-peripheral state that was product of capitalist underdevelopment – the ‘development of underdevelopment’ articulated by the likes of Andre Gundre Frank – predominantly as a result of American imperialism and its allies amongst the European ‘core’.

By the time PASOK was elected in 1981, the party had already moved significantly from its previous position towards the mainstream of European social democracy. In the same year, Greece was granted membership in the European Community. Now, Europe was where the future of Greece would be secured. The consensus amongst the leadership of PASOK was that joining the EC was the best way to institutionalize democracy and prevent a backsliding into right-wing dictatorship, as happened in the late 1960s. Like the Eurocommunists in Greece, Italy and Spain, PASOK saw European integration as a means of countering American hegemony in Europe and of implementing a reform agenda that could not easily be implemented through domestic politics alone. Meanwhile, the KKE remained staunchly opposed to European integration, viewing it not as a means to offset American hegemony, but rather as a project designed to further German economic dominance over Europe.

The Eurocommunists had also embraced a pro-European stance and refashioned themselves into a new party – named Synaspismos, or Coalition of the Left – in 1991. By 2004, Synaspismos had formed a broader based coalition with various other left-groups, forming the current party manifestation, Syriza. In the context of the current crisis, Syriza consistently ran on an electoral platform that sought to separate austerity from Eurozone membership. The Communists, in contrast, have consistently run a campaign of Eurozone exit – and have suffered for it electorally throughout the crisis.

Percentage of the Popular Vote

  2009 May 2012 June 2012 2015
KKE 7.5% 8.5% 4.5% 5.5%
Syriza 4.6% 16.78% 26.9% 36.3%

Syriza, then, have expressed – in a way that has been consistent with its pro-European stance – the will of the electorate: that is, to contest austerity while remaining in the Eurozone.

As the crisis unfolds, however, and particularly in light of the bail-out ‘agreement’ imposed upon the Syriza government by a zealously neoliberal Eurogroup lead by Wolfgang Schauble, it has become painfully apparent that opposing austerity within the Eurozone is futile. In a way then, Syriza’s failure is the result of an impossible task. Insofar as they sought to fulfill their popular mandate of resisting austerity without employing the ‘Grexit’ option, they were caught in a terrible conundrum. The irony here is that the KKE may have been right all along; however, if Syriza campaigned on fighting austerity by leaving the Eurozone, they would never have been elected. It remains to be seen whether the Greek popular classes will continue to hitch their wagon to Europe, or realize that the only way out of this austerity nightmare is to leave the Eurozone.


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