Greece: no end to the vicious cycle of austerity

Protest against austerity in Greece, 2015

On 21 August, the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras announced that Greece was finally exiting eight years of memorandum programmes agreed with the European Union and IMF and was now able to borrow again at market rates. He said that, with the ‘bailout’ period now behind it, Greece was entering a period of economic prosperity in which his government would raise wages, cut taxes and boost welfare spending. However, his words will have brought little comfort to the millions of people who have suffered some of the worst ravages of austerity endured by any European country in peace time.  And in any case, no one believes any more in his discredited Syriza party. Giannis, a Greek comrade from the New Left Current (NAR) for Communist Liberation and the ANTARSYA coalition, reports.

Greece’s €288bn bailout – the biggest bailout in global financial history – may have prevented the country’s precipitous exit from the Eurozone in 2010, but the Greek working class continues to count the cost. GDP has fallen from €222.2bn in 2010 to €183.7bn now, while public debt has soared to 180% of GDP, the highest level in the European Union. Salaries and pensions have fallen sharply during these eight years while unemployment has rocketed – hitting 28% in the worst years of 2014-2015 and still around 19.1% now. For young workers, the situation is even worse, with unemployment levels at around 40%. Half a million people have left the country in search of jobs. Even if no new austerity measurements are imposed in the short-term, which is unlikely, all the previous ones will remain as state laws. At the same time, Greece will officially remain on ‘surveillance’ by the Troika of the European Commission, IMF and European Central Bank until 2060.

Syriza’s popularity has been eroded by the hugely unpopular policies it has imposed since 2015 and is not expected to stay in power after the end of its current term in September 2019. The right-wing New Democracy will probably win the next election – although an expected high abstention as a result of the general disaffection with political parties across the spectrum will be the unofficial winner. Having played to perfection the role that EU, IMF, and the Greek and western capitalists needed them to play, Syriza can step back into the wings. After 2010, massive mobilisations of the working class against the crisis made it clear that the traditional parties could no longer rule in the old way.  With its apparently radical credentials and revolutionary rhetoric, Syriza was swept to power, putting it into a position to impose even tougher policies with little resistance. It ushered in a few progressive social reforms – including giving LGBTQI people the right to adopt – but otherwise became indistinguishable from previous governments with the vital difference that it had been able to divert a growing and militant working class movement.

The shine has come off the party’s original election slogan ‘hope is coming’; ‘hope is dead’ would be more accurate for the majority of people. Under a Syriza government, public services have been decimated, skilled workers’ wages slashed by 35% and those of unskilled workers by 31%, the minimum wage has been reduced by 22%, pensions have been cut and the pensionable age raised by ten years. The child poverty rate is the worst in Europe. No wonder the country has witnessed a huge increase in despair, misery and mental health problems.

Even worse, the period has been marked by the rise of fascism and nationalism, often used by the ruling class as a way to distract people from their material problems. Most recently, on 21 September, a gay rights activist was kicked to death by a mob in a shop in Athens; video footage showed the police joining in. Nationalist sentiment is being fomented by the right-wing movement over the name of the neighbouring country of Macedonia – also the name of a northern Greek province. At the same time, all the main parties and the media are whipping up fear about the phoney threat of war with Turkey.  While that is never something that can be ruled out entirely, with the authoritarian and unpredictable Turkish president Erdogan in charge, Greece has upgraded its role on the eastern Mediterranean by a strong coalition with NATO, the US, Israel, and many other imperialist states including the UK, making it one of the most powerful countries in the region. That of course does not come at no cost for the people; Greece is second amongst NATO states with regards to military spending as compared to GDP.

However, it would be wrong to characterise the Greek working class as inert or apathetic in the face of all this. The anti-government, anti-austerity movement that between 2010 and 2012 bravely stood up against a really violent police force was the catalyst for one of the most intense and unpredictable developments in that period in Europe, forcing the long-standing coalition of Pasok and New Democracy to announce a snap election in 2012, which brought Syriza to power. That should be a bright example for the future, even if the expectation that once in government Syriza would transform people’s lives became a crucial factor in the weakening of that movement. This futile hope proved to be a trap – something that should be a warning for all those in Britain who are waiting for Jeremy Corbyn to be elected. However, sections of the working class continue to mobilise. The movement against evictions, local struggles against the exploitation of the environment, the hunger strikes of prisoners fighting for basic rights are some of the most recent examples. In early September, thousands of people from trade unions and left-wing organisations marched in Thessaloniki against government policies, just weeks after the end of the bailout conditions.

What needs to be realised by everyone living in Greece is that living conditions will not now return to those that existed in the early 2000s, and that the slow improvement promised by the ruling class is a deception. Capitalism is now in a permanent state of crisis worldwide: it is neither willing nor able  to restore the the rights and conditions taken from the people. The movement in Greece needs now to go beyond simply criticizing the government and the inequality of European Union.


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