Greek and European ‘left’ exposed as Greece goes on strike


On 4 February, 2016 Greece will come to a standstill as workers take to the streets in support of a general strike, organised by trade unions to protest against the dismantling of the country’s social security system.

Besides the fact that the strike represents the pinnacle of near-daily mobilisations throughout January, two things need be mentioned.

First of all, ‘workers’ refers to a cross-class and cross-generational constituency, encompassing medical doctors, lawyers, engineers and farmers.

It brings together the unemployed youth and the pensioners who, despite the Syriza government’s promises, are seeing constant reductions to their already meager pensions. Furthermore, pensions are in many cases the sole income for families whose employable young are turning into the long-term unemployed.

Former civil servants, who have been making regular payments (without the ‘privilege’ of tax evasion) in a formal agreement with the state, feel robbed.

Indeed, they are robbed: the state, no matter who’s in office, is not honouring its social security contract.

Meanwhile, the fortunate youth who do have jobs are taught that the state is unreliable. There is no guarantee that contributing towards a pension will one day pay out.

The general strike is an expression of cross-generational indignation at the economy as the scene of a robbery in broad daylight. The robbery is ongoing and the coalitional government led by the ‘left’ – or whatever’s left of the left, given the mass exodus of Syriza party members following the ‘No’ vote in the July 2015 referendum, which mutated to a ‘Yes’ vote in just one week – is unable to stop it.

The question is: why?

Secondly, most of the workers taking to the streets this week have done so before. Many times.

But just about a year ago, in the first months of 2015, workers in Greece were taking to the streets in explicit support of the newly-elected Syriza and its anti-austerity government. We had never experienced anything like it.

It took place at a time when Syriza was embarking on the now infamous ‘negotiations’ with the representatives of transnational capital in the European Union (EU) against the catastrophic economic policies imposed on Greece by the Troïka (EU, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank [ECB]).

On 4 February, the workers will not be out on the streets in support of the Syriza-led government. They are not collectively against it either, but they are certainly against the fatal attack on social security demanded by the ‘Quartet’ (the Troïka having been upgraded to a quadriga following the inclusion of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to debt talks).

The general strike is part of this struggle. The difference between now and a year ago is that workers feel twice as disempowered: the ‘radical-left’, which some workers voted into government, has failed to protect them against the onslaught brought about by transnational capital.

The concept of failure is now central in Greek politics.


’Failure’ versus ’defeat’

Increasingly, the left is seen to represent failure, and Syriza’s electoral campaign slogan “hope is on its way” is answered by increasingly larger constituencies as “you are like the others; you failed (us), too”.

Why is this the case? Why do Greek workers speak of ‘failure’ as opposed to ‘defeat’?

Speaking of defeat might permit them to stand by the Syriza government as it tries to ‘handle’ the formidable scale of losses. Rather, according to the latest polls, Syriza is neck-and-neck with New Democracy, the country’s leading right-wing party, which along with the centre-left PASOK has governed Greece for years – all the way to the spectacular collapse of its economy in 2010.

What the latest polls suggest is that Greek workers have no commitment to the left.

The European and the Greek left must come to terms with the fact that, in January 2015, Syriza was not elected as ‘the radical left’ but as an anti-austerity party.

And there can be right-wing anti-austerity parties, too. Anti-austerity politics do not belong exclusively to the left. Syriza itself demonstrated this when it opted for a coalition government with a nationalist right-wing party, Independent Greeks/ANEL, not once but twice: in January and September 2015.

The strategic idea, one assumes, was that an alliance with a nationalist right-wing party would convince the majority of Greeks, who had not voted for the left, that this would be a government in service of the national interest.

The strategy has backfired, both internally and externally. Firstly, because the problem was articulated in terms of the country’s national interest rather than the interests of global capital, the answer could not be an anti-capitalist consciousness-raising but a clinging to the myth that ‘the nation’ is offered choices: if one government fails to defend the national interest, the next government is in line, and whether it bends left or right is a matter of no consequence.

At the same time, externally, Syriza’s ideological strategy sent the message that Greece’s problems were exclusive to Greece.

Syriza was not just isolated at the negotiating table but also in the collective consciousness of the EU workforce. This dovetailed with a ferocious EU-wide media campaign that presented Greece as an exception: from Poland to Finland, ‘the Greeks’ were presented as a nation of lazy, corrupt, unproductive beggars, living off the taxpayers of fellow EU countries.

The hate campaign worked miracles, dividing EU workers into ‘the Greeks’ and the rest. It is doubtful that the ECB and the Eurogroup could have staged their 12 July coup if they had been unsupported by the anti-Greek media campaign, launched straight after the IMF took over the country in 2010.

The European left had no counter-plan to this campaign, and it still doesn’t. Not just with regards to Greek workers but also in relation to any group of workers that might one day be portrayed as ‘the exception’.

To some extent, the Greek workers – a workforce facing rapid proletarisation at best and extreme precarisation at worst – are justified in their superficial, panic-led search for mere options, for stopgaps, for whatever ‘solution’.

They are wrong, however, in speaking of defeat rather than failure when it comes to the left in government.

The splintering of Syriza was the desired outcome of an EU led by the interests of global capital. But it could only have been realised under the ideological hegemony of failure.

‘Failure’ is hegemonic insofar as it is espoused across classes, adopted by both the left and the right. ‘Failure’ is associated with ineptitude, with not having done enough, with having shown up unprepared.

Stamped on the first left government of the EU, the ideology of ‘failure’ is dangerous precisely because it perpetuates the idea that failure is specific to Greece and Syriza; that others may not fail

But they will, as long as the left itself is divided into national narratives, defending the interests of the Greek or the Spanish or the British or, for that matter, the Catalan or the Scottish ‘people’.

A general strike in Greece is just that, a general strike in one ‘exceptional’ country.

A general strike across Europe must be the future imagined by the left.