“Democracy Rising”: Fighting Austerity in Greece

Chloe Wyma

Oxi—the Greek word for no—still covered Athens in the form of graffiti as hundreds of intellectuals and activists convened on 16 July for the Democracy Rising world conference. The defiant slogan urged Greek voters to reject another round of austerity measures Europe’s financial establishment demanded. On 5 July, Greek voters—in step with their left-wing coalition government Syriza—overwhelmingly voted against the program in a referendum. A week later, Europe’s financial technocracy strangled Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras into accepting a €86 billion bailout in exchange for an immiserating program of spending cuts, tax hikes, union crackdowns, pension cuts, legislation repeals, and fire-sale privatization of national assets. The night before the conference, protests erupted when the Greek Parliament passed the first set of bailout measures with twenty-one percent of Syriza MPs voting against it. Tsipras purged his cabinet of rebels the day after. Since then, he relied on support from opposition parties to pass another round of bailout reforms in the parliament and blocked a bid from dissenters to end bailout negotiations and return to a national currency.

Given these circumstances, the conference’s optimistic title took on a grimly ironic character. The memorandum imposes an economic dictatorship on a popularly elected government. It demonstrates that the European project—currently determined by zombie obedience to neoliberal market logic and vindictive austerity policies—is incompatible not only with the social justice policy of a left government but with democracy itself. That is the conclusion, if there is one at all, to be drawn from Democracy Rising, which took place over four days at the University of Athens’ School of Economics and Policy, the same building students occupied on 21 February, 1973, kicking off the Polytechnic uprising that brought down Greece’s military junta months later.
Considering Greece’s role in influencing the future of radical politics and the renewed impetus on the left to seek political alignments, Democracy Rising understandably attracted tremendous attention. Organized in partnership with the University of Athens by the Global Center of Advanced Studies, a new graduate school under the presidency of noted scholar, Alain Badiou, the conference reflected its host institution’s aspirations to reconcile activism and intellectual production. Against the backdrop of a thoroughly postmodern political situation where no means yes, Democracy Rising forced an encounter between the theory-oriented metapolitics of leftist academics and the debates from Syriza insiders negotiating a labyrinth of urgent and complex questions. Did the capitulators avert an economic emergency with dire humanitarian consequences? Or did they betray popular mandate by acquiescing to the same policies Greek voters—with Syriza’s cheerleading—rejected just days before? How badly does Syriza’s genuflection dampen hopes for a greater European Left? Would exiting the Eurozone free Greece from debt vassalage or plunge the country deeper into bankruptcy?

Democracy Rising didn’t produce definitive answers but a collective sense of battered hope and delicate solidarity. This reflects the confusion of a divided Greek left as it tries to regroup. The historical exigencies of the Eurozone crisis transformed a forum for theory and philosophy into a contentious and occasionally explosive site of realpolitik, leveling the ground between the ivory tower and the sausage factory of parliamentary democracy. After a long day at work, a weary but determined speaker of the Hellenic Parliament addressed the conference on its first day. Zoi Konstantopoulou says, “These are very difficult times for those of us who believed there was a limit to this anti-democratic, anti-European, anti-human policy.”

Konstantopoulou is one of Tsipras’s most vocal opponents within Syriza’s Left Platform, the muscle behind the Greek Debt Truth Commission—which, with the help of political scientist Eric Touissant, published a report in June declaring Greece’s debt “illegal, odious and unsustainable.” It should be noted too that Konstantopoulou has a rather unlikely ally in the IMF, which, after breaking its own rules to back Greece’s first two untenable bailouts, now refuses to finance another deal unless Greece’s creditors offer significant debt relief. In his welcoming address, Greek Minister of Education Aristides Baltas defended Tspiras’ surrender. If he hadn’t compromised, he said, bank closures would have prevented ships from delivering drinking water to the Greek islands. He argued that even with Schäuble & Co. gripping Greece’s purse strings, Syriza could still help working people by assisting the country’s growing grass-roots organizations, social movements, and solidarity networks. In response, Costas Douzinas, professor of law at the University of London, urged his comrades to “critically support” the Syriza government.

On the other hand, British-Pakistani activist and intellectual Tariq Ali called Tspiras’ capitulation a betrayal of the Greek people, underwritten by a fetishization of the Euro currency and a “fatal trust” in the EU, which he likened to a dysfunctional family headed by a German patriarch “schooled in the old disciplinary ways of Prussia.” He further stated that he didn’t think the Syrzia government could survive longer after that. But he reversed his sharpest knives to address the hypocrisy of Europe’s financial elites: “these jokers who teach lessons to the Greek people like Juncker, who runs a Ruritanian duchy called Luxemburg which is the biggest tax evasion center in

The battle over Syriza escalated on the second day of the conference when economist Costas Lapavistas, a Member of Parliament and delegate of Syriza’s Left Platform, delivered a combutive speech calling the bailout “a disastrous capitulation” to the Eurozone’s “neocolonial” and “recessionary” program. Syriza, he argued, had made a strategic error in betting on the seductive but ungovernable platform to pave the way for socialism in Greece while remaining within a monetary union “that crystalizes and encapsulates class relations.” He emphasized that Greece cannot undergo change while benefitting from the bailout. He proposed that Greece should withdraw its “consent to this agreement and redesign a radical program that is consistent with our values, our aims, and what we told to the Greek people.”

Lapavistas laid out an exit strategy that includes defaulting on the national debt, nationalization of the banks, and the conversion of all prices and obligations to the new currency at a rate of 1:1 He expects devaluation to settle at fifteen to twenty percent. He explained that the plan would create a difficult recession initially, but he expects positive rates of growth to appear after twelve to eighteen months as the dormant Greek productive sector regains control of the domestic market. Pandemonium erupted in the lecture hall in response to his speech—so too did applauses and obscenities in almost equal measure.

Lapavistas’s plan, countered Douzinas, “could be the longest suicide note in the history of the left”. Lapavistas’s projections are contestable, but his plan was the most concrete alternative to the austerity doctrine that emerged in the conference. On 31 July, Tspiras admitted he charged former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis with drafting a contingency plan to exit the Euro, but claimed it was only an emergency measure. While the prospect of leaving the Euro seems increasingly distant, a revolt within Syriza is likely to lead to new elections in September or October and, with them, a renewed possibility of a so-called “Grexit.”

On Sunday, Stelios Elliniadis of Syriza’s Central Committee spoke candidly to organizers from other European left parties including Germany’s Die Linke, Ireland’s Sinn Fein, and Spain’s Podemos. He implored them to learn from Syriza’s mistakes. He said the party lacked a serious exit strategy and a plan for staying in the Eurozone and governing within its iron cage. “We failed to have a deeper understanding of the will of the people,” he stated, “The leading group in the Syriza government was surprised and, I should say, scared by the result.” This post-Oxi moment is a time of introspection and self-criticism, but also one of solidarity, a notion that will become increasingly significant whether Greece exits or continues to struggle under the dead hand of Eurozone policy. Leo Panitch, a professor of political economy at York University, criticized armchair quarterbacking from those outside Greece and urged Syriza to expand international solidarity networks. Catarina Principe, a Portuguese activist and member of Portugal’s Bloco de Esquerda, and Eoin O Broin from Sinn Fein maintained Euroskepticism while also criticizing inflammatory and divisive rhetoric against Syriza’s leadership.

“The EU is showing the cracks in the European project,” Principe said, “They can only accept so much democracy, so much equality.” Activists Astra Taylor and Laura Hanna drew global connections between the Greek situation and the student debt and mortgage crises in the U.S, urging the indebted to challenge creditor morality with economic disobedience. Several panelists reiterated the importance of solidarity tourism, encouraging sympathetic travelers to spend their vacation in Greece.

In a highly politicized Greek society, these conversations spilled beyond the university. At a sidewalk café in the leftist neighborhood of Exarcheia, journalists and activists dissected Syriza’s recent failures and weighed the pros and cons of a post-Euro Greece. “We mourn together. We don’t sleep at night,” said Mihalis Panayiotakis, a journalist and member of Syriza’s digital policy committee. He maintains hope that exiting the Euro may
offer a way out of peonage and austerity. “People ‘want’ to stay in the Eurozone for the same reasons shopkeepers ‘want’ to remain under some mobsters’ protection racket,” he said, “It’s not because of hope, it’s because of fear.” “This is the first time someone tried to articulate an alternative to global capitalism,” said journalist Matthaios Tsimitakis. “We failed. So what? There’s a clear class root to the referendum. The rich voted for ‘yes.’ The poor voted for ‘no.’ Maybe people have changed. Maybe it’s not the end.”


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