As 2015 comes to a close, here’s a podcast and a post that’s something in between a best of and a year in review. It’s a look back at some of my interviews from 2015, both in terms of significant subjects and personal favourites.
After Syriza accepted a third austerity memorandum for Greece and called early elections, much of its leadership left the party. Some formed Popular Unity, while others are still searching for a new home to continue the fight against austerity.
Andreas Karitzis is among the latter. Until this summer, he was a member of Syriza’s central committee and had been a key figure in the party’s electoral planning process before its triumph in January’s elections. Karitzis was also previously at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, the research center affiliated with Syriza.
Now outside Syriza, Karitzis recently spoke on my podcast about charting an anti-austerity path when a left government is responsible for implementing austerity. “The Greek experience,” Karitzis says, “teaches us that we need to go beyond electoral politics, not against it.” This transcript was originally published in Jacobin.
Two updates from Southern Europe this week: Catarina Principe brings us up-to-date on the situation in Portugal and Andreas Karitzis recounts the search for a new politics in Greece after (and under the rule of) Syriza.
My first guest, Catarina Principe, is an prominent activist in Portugal’s Bloco, or Left Bloc, the country’s new broad left party. She been a member since her teenage years and has sat in the governing structures of the party. She is also a prolific writer. Most recently, she has been editing a collection of essays on the European left, to be published in May 2016. The Left Bloc gained its largest vote share ever in Portugal’s recent elections. The possibility that there might be a social democratic government that it supports has created a political crisis that today remains unresolved.
Andreas Karitzis was, until this summer, a member of Syriza’s central committee and had long been a key figure in the party. He was instrumental in the planning process after 2012 and also previously worked at the Nicos Poulantzas Institute, the research centre affliated with Syriza and named after the influential Greek socialist political theorist. Like many, he is now searching for a new home to continue the fight against austerity.
To recap: Syriza maintained power in Greece after September’s general election. The party and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, also remained committed to implementing the new austerity memorandum “negotiated” with Europe’s bureaucrat and banker overlords. Since the summer, many people, including Andreas, have exited Syriza and the left has once again fractured. Andreas speaks with me about how to do politics in this new conjuncture.
This is the full transcript of my podcast interview with John Milios; it appeared earlier this week in Jacobin. John is a prominent figure within Syriza; he was the party’s chief economic advisor until earlier this year and is also a member of the party’s central committee, one of the 109 who signed a letter last week opposing the new memorandum.
Here, he discusses Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s decision to hold the July 5 referendum, the anti-austerity course not taken by Syriza, and how the slogan “people over profits” can become a concrete reality in Greece.
Michal Rozworski: What is the situation one week after the memorandum was agreed to and two weeks after the referendum?
John Milios: When the referendum was proclaimed, we saw an election campaign that had class and social characteristics. There were two “Greeces” fighting each other. On one side, you had roughly the poor, wage-earners, the unemployed, and the small entrepreneurs, while on the other you had the capitalists, the managerial class, the higher ranks of the state, and so on agitating for Yes.
Ultimately, a broad coalition of the social majority saw the referendum as a chance to express their commitment not to continue with austerity and neoliberalism. All this happened in a situation of fear and terror arising due to the European Central Bank’s choice to not extend Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to the Greek banks. A lot of people saw this as a scare tactic and started withdrawing money. Ultimately, it led to a bank holiday.
Greece continues to be in flux. Two weeks ago, the Greek people voted over 60% No in a referendum on further austerity. One week ago, the Greek government agreed to a new Memorandum in principle after an all-night negotiation, described at times as “mental water-boarding”. Finally, last Wednesday, the first pieces of enabling legislation were passed by the Greek Parliament with a large rebellion of Syriza MPs voting against the laws.
Since then debate has raged in and outside Greece about the future of the Eurozone, the political strategy chosen by the Syriza leadership and the future of this first government of the left in post-crisis Europe. This interview with John Milios is an important intervention into this debate.
John Milios is a long-time activist and prominent figure within Syriza. Until early this year, he was the party’s chief economic advisor. He is also a member of Syriza’s central committee and was one of the 109 out of 201 members of the central committee who signed a letter published last week opposing the new Memorandum. He is a professor of political economy and the history of economic thought at the National Technical University of Athens.
Alternate title: #Gruster#$%k. My most recent piece from Ricochet on Syriza’s proposed austerity package.
There is acrimony and division in Athens, after the Syriza government submitted a revised list of proposals to its creditors. Despite a resounding victory in last Sunday’s referendum for Oxi — the “no” vote rejecting creditor demands that Greece fall in line — the government has presented austerity measures that exceed those previously on the table.
Despite dissension within the ranks of Syriza, the Greek parliament approved the government’s proposals in a bitter debate and vote that stretched into early Saturday morning.
The proposal now includes €13 billion in measures over three years rather than €8 billion over two. In short, it is a terrible austerity package. It enforces consecutive primary surpluses (calculated as Greece’s budget balance minus debt servicing payments) on a depressed economy, cutting expenditures on transfers like pensions and raising taxes.
In contrast to previous proposals and memorandums, the current proposal somewhat moderates the intense class bias of austerity measures. More of them are directed towards the rich in the form of small corporate tax hikes, a more progressive income tax, and cuts to spending on military contracts. All this, however, is far too little to talk about in any serious way. After so many “last chances” at the level of official negotiations, punitive austerity appears to be the edge of possibility in Europe today.
To say this shows the bounds of a neoliberal, technocratic Europe sounds a little hollow by now. Yes, a split has finally appeared between the creditors — France helped Greece draft its proposals, which Germany sees as insufficient — but if the political choice in Europe is between François Hollande’s technocrats and Angela Merkel’s, then it is the slimmest of margins to be toying with.
This week has been a taste of what the economy would look like with a real rupture with the Eurozone: uncertainty, elite blackmail, banks teetering on the brink and the start of rationing. That the mobilization of Syriza and the left outside it has overcome this and made Oxi a possibility is impressive. Greece and its economy can expect no miracles either way Sunday’s vote goes and for quite some time afterwards, but they deserve full international solidarity.
And so on the eve of the Greek referendum, with the streets of Athens still buzzing from Friday night’s enormous Oxi!/No! rally in Syntagma Square, I’ve collected and parsed some of my notes on Greece from afar. A text on where things stand is first, then some notes on how things came to be for those not keeping close track the past few months.
Where things stand
Five months of torturous, fruitless negotiations came to a head last week when the more-or-less polite dance around the table in Brussels abruptly broke down. Whether this was a costly demobilization or a calculated strategy to demonstrate the intransigence of the Institutions doesn’t quite matter at this point. When Alexis Tspiras called a referendum on a take-it-or-leave-it offer last Friday, he precipitated a political rupture, which soon started to foreshadow the economic rupture that Greece leaving or being pushed out of the Euro would bring.
Belatedly, here is an article I wrote on Greece’s agreement with the Eurozone for Ricochet. It focuses on the next four months with their opportunities and pitfalls. Given that the list of reforms authored by Yanis Varoufakis looks to get the approval of the Eurogroup member states, the article remains relevant, the breathing room actually in place.
Assuming its plan of reforms is accepted by the Eurogroup on Monday, Greece’s Syriza government has gained four months of breathing room — albeit in the same stuffy space, already full of the nauseating fumes of austerity, the window barely cracked.
No one was humiliated in Friday’s compromise between Greece and the Eurogroup. Nevertheless, Syriza had to concede much, most painfully the continued involvement of external observers from the Troika. In return, Germany’s no-compromise hard line was finally broken. Friday concluded but the first skirmish in a long battle.
If anything, the resulting agreement demonstrates the weakness of Syriza’s position. Syriza has inherited an economy and financial system in tatters — years of economic depression compounded by sadistic austerity. Yet its leaders, for now, calculate that change outside the bounds of European institutions, including the euro, would open the gates to something far worse. Whatever the precise distribution of gains and losses, which will only come to light as the agreement is implemented, the fact remains that Syriza has four months to act.
Four months to stop the bleeding
First, of course, there is the pressing need to start enacting change in state policy. Existing austerity measures will be hard to dislodge for the time being. But breathing room means that Syriza will be able to spend more, even run a smaller primary surplus this year than stipulated in the old program, perhaps by up to 3 per cent of GDP. It can also start breaking the old oligarchy’s grip on the Greek economy and go after the unpaid taxes of the rich.
Beyond this, there is space for creativity. One Greek journalist tweeted that he’d already overheard Greece’s delegation at the Eurogroup talking about creative ways to raise the minimum wage. Though a far cry from simply raising the minimum wage, such creativity would be a testament to Europe’s intransigence.
Altogether this amounts to a program that can stop the bleeding and subtly fortify the patient before the next round of negotiations.
Update: the transcript of this interview has now been published in Jacobin.
This week I’ve devoted the entire show to discussing the most recent developments in Greece. While there is a great deal of day-to-day drama at the level of the ongoing negotiations between Greece and European institutions, I wanted to take a broader strategic and political look at what the election of Syriza both for Greece and more broadly for the left around the world, including in Canada. To that end, I’m happy to present an extended conversation with Leo Panitch. Leo is professor of political science at York University, author most recently of The Making of Global Capitalism: The Politcal Economy of American Empire, written with Sam Gindin, and knows Greece well.
I’m starting to cautiously think that the Varoufakis and Lapavitsas “approaches” to the crisis might end up not too far away from each other even though the strategic direction they have advocated is very different. The situation, especially after today’s hardening of the creditors’ stance at the Eurogroup, may simply force it. The other option is that this is the intense posturing phase just before a bridging agreement, in which case the following would be less applicable for the time being. Like Paul Krugman, however, I’m inclined to think that the EU is serious in possibly forcing a crisis — with creditors and “Northerners” having the upper hand in the camp facing Greece.
In fact, reading Lapavitsas and Flassbeck’s very recent e-book on the European crisis (recommended), I’m struck with how much of the structural analysis of the causes of the crisis the authors share with Varoufakis. Both use Keynes to similar effect; both have Marx in the background. Both ascribe the debt crisis to current account imbalances across the EU driven largely by wage repression in Germany. Of course, this is not to collapse the two approaches. Crucially, they draw very different conclusions in terms of what the analysis of the causes of the crisis mean for political possibilities.
But look at how things are playing out. I think Varoufakis is honest when he says he doesn’t have a complex, game-theory-based bargaining strategy. It was a smart strategic choice on the part of Syriza to place him at the helm of the negotiations simply in order to have the EU force the issue in the face of this “naive” goodwill — one that, let us hope, will nevertheless not accept further austerity. The one thing Varoufakis isn’t saying is that behind “I don’t have a Plan B” lies the fact that the creditors may simply force a Plan B.