Already, after just two weeks in office, the Syriza-led coalition government in Greece has put every other government in the EU to shame.
Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis, the country’s new Prime Minister and Finance Minister respectively, have reaffirmed our faith in politics as a way to transform and improve people’s lives – specifically the lives of those crying out for transformation and improvement. For far too long we have been accustomed to politicians as machine-men devoted to upholding a status quo of gross inequality and the interests of the rich over those of the poor and ordinary working people.
In the UK we are into the fifth year of a coalition government that has extended itself in crushing the lives of the least well off beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of austerity. In the same period the rich have seen their wealth increase, the banks continue to operate as before, and all is well in Toryshire.
In Greece this assault on the poor and working people has been even more extreme, threatening the very fabric of society, unleashing the ugly recrudescence of fascism in the shape of Golden Dawn, a party with a penchant for demonising and attacking immigrants and people with skin darker than their own. Does this ring any bells?
Syriza’s historic election victory came as a last gasp of hope in a valley of despair, the voice of a proud and ancient people summoning the collective will to defy the forces unleashed against them in the name of fiscal responsibility. A spirit and soul-crushing attack on the very foundations of a civilised society, which had been criminalised by the powerful in service to an ideology that holds human beings as the means to the end rather than the end in itself, had been rejected. The question now became: who rules Greece? Is it the people through the ballot box or the Troika?
The evidence of the disaster unfolding as a consequence of the terms attached to a bailout package to meet Greece’s crippling debt is irrefutable. Its economy contracted by 25% in 2014 alone, resulting in a spike in unemployment, homelessness, and poverty. Greece’s healthcare budget was decimated, the impact measured in an increase in infant mortality, untreated infections, and suicide.
No matter, the Troika of the IMF, European Commission, and the European Central Bank had tried and convicted Greece and its people in the court of high finance and neoliberal orthodoxy, and only the most egregious and exemplary punishment would do. The description of this punishment as “fiscal waterboarding” by Yanis Varoufakis was witheringly accurate.
The scenes of joy and jubilation that met Syriza’s recent election victory in Greece were consistent with a country and society that had just been liberated from an occupation. A seminal moment in Greece’s long history had arrived, with hope replacing despair and optimism in place of the oppression that had reduced life for millions to a struggle for survival.
The media followed Yanis Varoufakis as he toured European capitals economy-class in the immediate aftermath of his appointment as finance minister. His objective was simple: cooperation, compassion, solidarity, and common sense. Dressed in leather jacket and open-neck shirt rather than the contrived stiff suits of his counterparts, Mr Varoufakis epitomised someone come to do battle and fight in the interests of the common man.
The short shrift he received was entirely predictable. However in the process he succeeded in drawing a clear ideological line between the haves and have nots, the one percent and the ninety nine percent. Since the economic crisis crashed on top of our heads seven years ago, this line had been increasingly blurred as political parties and voices emerged which diverted attention away from the one percent, inequality and the concentration of wealth and power as the locus of the problem, turning our guns instead against immigrants and immigration.
Alexis Tsipras and the newly installed government he leads will back down, commentators predicted. And it was hard to argue, given the commitment made to servicing the debt and to remaining within the EU and the Eurozone, despite the fact the political capital allowing him to default and withdraw from both the aforementioned was his.
But, no, it seemed Mr Tsipras had only boxed himself in, as his attempt to gain respite and a restructuring of the debt was rebuffed. Worse, it was followed by a move by the ECB to tighten the screws with the decision to cancel the facility allowing Athens to use government debt as loan collateral, thus opening the door to a run on Greek banks.
But so far the Greek government is holding fast. Alexis Tsipras has pledged to raise the minimum wage, re-employ public sector workers, maintain the current retirement age, and various other reforms with the objective of reintroducing aggregate demand into the economy.
The defiance demonstrated by Tsipras and Varoufakis in face of huge pressure to back down is a breath of fresh air. Their message that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there is an alternative, is not meant per se for the ears of Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, or David Cameron. It is meant for the masses, not only in Greece but also throughout Europe and the Eurozone, in response to an economic crisis that has morphed into a humanitarian crisis.
A struggle is now underway for the future not only of Greece but every country in Europe currently labouring under the iron heel of austerity and austerity governments and parties.
What happens in Greece does not stay in Greece. Syriza fights for all of us and we must fight for them.