Ode To Joy! Syriza supporters cheer as their party's victory is announced, But will the people of Greece be able to successfully reoccupy the democratic institutions emptied out by the twin evils of neoliberalism and austerity?
GREECE, the birthplace of democracy, is now the test of whether democratic governments still possess the power to effect meaningful change. If it passes the test, then the election of the left-wing Syriza Party, on 26 January 2015, will mark the beginning of the end of the 30-year neoliberal experiment. But, if it fails, then the growing perception that democracy has become an empty shell, incapable of delivering anything more than more of the same, will harden – not only in Greece, but across the whole world.
There are those who suggest that, when it comes to democracy, the neoliberal doctrines of the political class have acted like a neutron bomb. For those unfamiliar with the term, the neutron bomb was one of the Cold War’s most abhorrent creations. It’s great “selling point” was that its detonation, while killing human-beings by the million, would leave key infrastructure intact. Ready and waiting, following a suitable interval, for occupation and use by the “victors”.
According to the neutron bomb metaphor, neoliberalism has eliminated the vital human elements of our democratic system. The mass participation in political life for which New Zealand was justly famous (roughly a tenth of our adult population once belonged to a political party and the numbers voting frequently exceeded 90 percent of registered electors) has dwindled dramatically, reducing our democratic institutions to empty, echoing shells. The awful uniformity, both in terms of the political choices on offer, and the politicians offering them, is thus explained.
The Syriza Party’s stunning victory in the Greek general election is significant precisely because it has allowed the Greek people to re-occupy their country’s democratic infrastructure. The resulting surge of hope that has swept through the Greek population – evident in the highly emotional responses of ordinary Greek citizens interviewed on the streets of Athens by the world’s bemused media – is at once the new Prime Minister’s, Alexis Tsipras’, greatest asset and the source of his greatest vulnerability.
The neoliberal financiers of the European Union are adamant that the Greek people will not be released from the debt obligations imposed upon them by the profligate borrowings of corrupt politicians more than a decade ago. The devastating austerity programme overseen by the so-called “Troika” (the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund) which has seen unemployment soar to 1 in 4 of the workforce, and the incomes of those lucky enough to still have a job slashed by as much as 40 percent, must, according to Greece’s unyielding European creditors, remain in force.
The neoliberal elites’ assumption has always been that by forcing savage reductions in the size and scope of Greece’s public sector, the confidence of her private sector would soar, investment would surge, and before you could say “Long live the Eurozone!”, the Greek economy would have grown its way back to prosperity.
In the real world, however, events have unfolded very differently. Health cuts left the chronically ill without medicine. Wage cuts led to mortgage defaults and homeless families. Confidence collapsed. Investment dried up. Emigration soared. And when the desperate victims of austerity protested, their political representatives, pledged to defend the almighty Euro, called out the Riot Police.
When the Greeks voted-out the politicians responsible, they discovered to their horror that the replacements were just as committed to implementing the Troika’s austerity programme as their predecessors. When tested, political parties nominally of the Left turned out to be practically indistinguishable from their supposed ideological rivals on the Right. In the end, politicians from the traditional parties felt obliged to join forces against what they saw as the unrealistic and unreasonable demands of the electors. Isolated and vilified as traitors, the Greek political class would have struggled to detect the irony in Berthold Brecht’s famous suggestion that it might be easier for the Government “To dissolve the people and elect another.”
Greece’s electors have now delivered their emphatic reply to the brutal economic absolutism of successive neoliberal governments. The halls of the democratic Greek Republic, for long the exclusive preserve of neoliberal technocrats and their local political collaborators, are now ringing with the excited voices of the Greek People.
And the peoples of the European Union, themselves no strangers to the brutalities of austerity, are listening. If Syriza is to succeed, it is to this audience that it must appeal.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 January 2015.