SYRIZA: a mirage in the Euro-desert for a desperate left

You think these Greek radicals will seriously challenge austerity? Think again.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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SYRIZA, the radical left-wing coalition that came second in the recent Greek elections, is being talked about as the spearhead of a new European movement against austerity. These edgy young Greeks, whose offices are apparently covered in Communist posters and stickers saying ‘Revolution!’, are reportedly leading a ‘great revolt’ against austerity. Where Angela Merkel and her dwindling minions want to immiserate the workers by forcing struggling Euro countries to cut public expenditure and live more austerely, SYRIZA is at the ‘forefront of the anti-austerity backlash’, commentators tell us.

Are they serious? SYRIZA will lead us out of slow-growth, or rather no-growth, and towards post-austerity? This coalition whose largest party, Synaspismos, says ‘don’t even think about it!’ to nuclear energy on the basis that it poses ‘a lethal danger to the people and the environment’? This coalition that believes that a key problem in modern Europe is over-use of energy, and therefore we need ‘a radical change of the production and consumption models’ to make people learn to live on less energy? This group of activists that demands the institutionalisation of ‘sustainable development’ (read ‘no development’) in order to coax Europeans to ‘live and work as ecologically responsible people’? This coalition that is so uncomfortable with the idea of big economic growth that in 2003 its key member changed its name from Coalition of the Left and Progress to Coalition of the Left and Ecology, lest anyone accidentally think it was interested in pursuing proper progress when all it really wants is to create a vapid-sounding ‘ecologically-oriented, compassionate world’?

Expecting SYRIZA to fight the good fight against austerity and for a more prosperous Europe is a bit like asking Al Gore to front an advert for 4x4s. It isn’t going to happen, because SYRIZA, in its nature, in its ideology, is hostile to the very thing we need to challenge today’s austerity script – a serious commitment to risk-taking, experimentation and exploration in the name of creating more wealth. Indeed, SYRIZA encapsulates a profound contradiction at the heart of the allegedly ‘pro-growth’ movements on the rise in Europe, from the support for President Francois Hollande in France to the rise of anti-Merkel agitators in Greece: these groups pose as anti-austerity yet they embody the very anti-growth prejudices that are widespread in modern Europe and which threaten to store up further misery for recession-hit Europeans.

The most striking thing about SYRIZA is its immaturity. Like the Pirate Party in Berlin, the comedian party doing well in Italy, and seemingly more serious, EU-questioning parties like Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, SYRIZA, which has failed to set up a coalition government, is a highly juvenile outfit. It seems incapable of taking anything seriously. It prefers to rage against globalisation, against evil Germany, against Brussels and against Greece’s old ruling class rather than provide anything in the way of a coherent strategy for tackling recession and creating the conditions for economic stability, far less growth. Its immaturity is not surprising when you consider its origins – it was forged in the fires of that most infantile of political gestures, the radical anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The history of SYRIZA is in many ways the history of the decline of the old left and its replacement by new forms of left radicalism which are innately hostile to modernity and meaningful progress. SYRIZA is made up of more than 10 left-wing parties, including small outfits like the Anticapitalist Political Group and Ecosocialists of Greece. The largest party in SYRIZA is Synaspismos, which is itself a coalition of left-wing movements and ecological groups. The leader of Synaspismos, 37-year-old Alexis Tsipras, is also the leader of SYRIZA – he’s the man currently frightening Brussels and exciting leftists after leading SYRIZA to a 16 per cent share of the vote in Greece’s legislative elections on 6 May.

Tsipras’s outfit Synaspismos was originally founded in the late 1980s and was initially a coalition between Greece’s two main Communist parties: the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Greece and Greek Left, which was a ‘Eurocommunist’ party. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, there were profound splits and spats in the Communist movement in Greece, leading a huge chunk of the pro-Soviet Communist Party of Greece to withdraw from the Synaspismos coalition. Synaspismos then transformed into an actual political party and pottered along fairly undramatically in the 1990s, winning between three and six per cent of the vote in various elections. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, with the rise of that middle-class screech of rage against modern life that was the anti-globalisation movement, that Synaspismos gathered some momentum and morphed into SYRIZA.

Like many other old left movements in Europe that were still reeling from the fall of Communism in the East, Synaspismos glimpsed in the anti-globalisation movement of the early 2000s an opportunity for renewal, believing it could crib from the shallow ‘anti-capitalism’ of these new protesters. As the BBC’s Paul Mason describes it, it was at this moment that Synaspismos ‘evolved in an interesting direction, reacting to the rise of the anti-globalisation movement’. Synaspismos played ‘a significant role’ in the mobilisation of anti-globalisation protests against G8 summits, particularly in Genoa in 2001. As a result of leaping into the disparate, leaderless and objective-lite anti-globalisation outburst, Synaspismos turned from being a pretty normal political party into, in Mason’s words, ‘a highly diverse umbrella group’ consisting of ‘left Social Democrats, far leftists and ecologists’. A few years later, in 2004, it made its new position as a ‘highly diverse umbrella group’ formal, by bringing on board various other ‘anti-capitalist groups’ and ‘eco-leftists’ and becoming SYRIZA, the coalition now wielding great influence in Greece.

In short, the form that SYRIZA takes – a peculiarly diverse coalition of ageing leftists and youngish greens – is merely a reflection of its degraded political trajectory. SYRIZA is in effect the party-political expression of the middle-class morass that was the anti-globalisation movement. In both its form (various radical groups cleaving together) and its outlook (narrowly anti-Brussels and obsessively anti-Merkel), SYRIZA embodies all the worst traits of the anti-globalisation movement that first came to prominence a decade ago. Writer Noreena Hertz once described that movement as ‘a babel of different languages and objectives gathered under one “anti” banner’. And while she and others sought to depict that as a positive thing, as evidence of a newly energetic, non-dogmatic left that was angry about capitalism, in truth this babel-like movement of people who were just anti – anti-business, anti-Starbucks, anti-war, anti-nuclear – spoke to the profound organisational disarray and ideological decay of the post-Cold War left. SYRIZA was born from that decay.

It is not surprising, then, that SYRIZA embodies the anti-progress prejudices of the army of antis in the anti-globalisation movement. Anyone who looks at SYRIZA’s propaganda will see that it is uncomfortable with development, unless it is of the ‘sustainable’ variety, and that it is antagonistic towards both nuclear power and to what it calls the ‘over-exploitation of natural resources promoted by neoliberal expansionism’. Synaspismos, the central party in SYRIZA, says ‘natural resources are under attack everywhere’, and argues that rather than encourage the further ‘exploitation’ of natural resources for mankind’s gain – or what others of us might call the use of nature’s resources to create a world of plenty – we instead need ‘a radical change of the production and consumption models’. This is not anything like a genuinely socialist call to produce more, and to do it more rationally, in order to liberate mankind from need, but rather is an eco-meek demand to lower people’s horizons (‘radically change the consumption model’) in order to protect nature’s resources from further human exploitation.

It is entirely fitting that Synaspismos was included in the book The Green Challenge: The Development of Green Parties in Europe, Dick Richardson’s analysis of new political parties which ‘accept the critique of industrial society’. Synaspismos is against nuclear power (it is ‘extremely problematic’, creates ‘huge dangers’, and detracts from the importance of ‘saving energy and using renewable energy sources’); it is a fulsome promoter of ‘sustainable development’ (that fashionable modern-day warning against rethinking, reimagining and remaking our world in favour of only doing That Which Can Be Sustained); and it is less interested in making Europeans wealthy than in helping us to ‘live and work as ecologically responsible people’ (patronising much?). Little wonder that in 2003 it removed the word ‘progress’ from its name and replaced it with ‘ecology’ – because like the anti-globalisation movement that transformed its fortunes, Synaspismos and its new mother-ship SYRIZA do not believe in progress as socialists would once have understood it.

Synaspismos and SYRIZA are anti-austerity in the same way that the Naomi Klein followers of the early 2000s were anti-capitalist – that is, in an entirely substanceless fashion, more emotionally than ideologically. Where once radical socialists were against capitalism because they believed in a more rational and full-on conquering of nature and production of stuff – as Sylvia Pankhurst said, we do not call for ‘penurious thrift’ but for ‘a great production that will supply all’ – the radicals of the anti-globalisation movement were against capitalism because they believed it made the plebs greedy, made bankers fat, and really screwed up life for Mother Nature. They were against everything, but were for nothing of any note. SYRIZA has taken this borderline nihilistic ‘anti’ attitude into the discussions about the future of the Euro and the EU.

Some leftists are now disappointed that SYRIZA’s great challenge to Brussels has amounted to little more than a plea that it treat Greece a bit more leniently, rethinking the terms of the bailout package. But there’s nothing surprising about this. Because SYRIZA, for all its radical posturing, actually sings from the same sluggish, sceptical-about-growth, horizon-lowering hymn sheet as every other mainstream political group in modern Europe, right from the Queen of Austerity Angela Merkel to that alleged warrior for growth Francois Hollande. Indeed, the anti-globalisation movement was never much more than a loud, youthful, occasionally bloody expression of the modern capitalist elite’s own lack of confidence in its system. So if SYRIZA, forged in the aftermath of that movement, does at some point form a government in Greece, we will not be witnessing the empowerment of a radical opposition to both economic and intellectual downturn in modern Europe, but rather the institutionalisation of contemporary capitalism’s own self-disgust.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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