Greeks and French vote against austerity, but what did they vote for?

By Pete Dolack

The weekend’s election results in Greece and France can be interpreted in different ways. The most obvious reading, and not at all untrue despite its obviousness, is to see them as a continuation of European voters’ rejection of their governments.

Ten of seventeen Eurozone governments have fallen or been voted out in the past fifteen months, and throwing out the incumbents is a natural response to an extended period of economic malaise. So just as Spain voting in its conservative party to punish the socialists’ austerity can’t reasonably be portrayed as a Spanish lurch to the Right — the conservatives, after all, promised to impose more austerity and swiftly became unpopular when they did as they said they would — we should be cautious in proclaiming a French shift to the Left.

Then again, since there is nothing socialist about the French Socialist Party, we have ample reason to avoid saying France has shifted leftward. Europeans clearly are sick of the mindless austerity being imposed on them, but for the most part have not advanced beyond wanting to throw out the incumbents. The surest way to do that is to vote for the main opposition party, but doing so only reinforces the system that is not working.

French voters at least had alternatives to vote for in the first round of their presidential elections, but the Left Front candidate who offered a clear Left alternative to France’s two main parties, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, finished a disappointing fourth with 11 percent of the vote, below what he had been polling. Worse, the far Right candidate, Marine Le Pen, won 18 percent. The Socialist François Hollande and Union for a Popular Movement’s Nicolas Sarkozy earned only about 55 percent of the first-round voting between them — the French demonstrated they are seeking an alternative.

But what alternative? That is as yet unknown. But the strong showings by crypto-fascists in France (Le Pen) and outright fascists in Greece (the Golden Dawn party) demonstrate the danger inherent in allowing economic malaise to continue without a solution or alternative. If the Left is unable to offer a coherent alternative, the extreme Right will threaten to fill the vacuum. Golden Dawn won seven percent of the vote in Greece on Sunday, elevating a fascist party into a national parliament. And if you have doubts about Golden Dawn being fascist, here is an excerpt from a report by Maria Margaronis in The Guardian on May 7:

“Its leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, threw Greek journalists who wouldn’t rise for him out of his press conference and dedicated his victory to ‘the brave boys in the black shirts.’ ‘Those who slander us,’ he barked, and ‘those who betray this country should be afraid: we’re coming.’ Near Kalavryta in the Peloponnese, the site of one of the most terrible Nazi massacres in the 1940s, Golden Dawn graffiti calls for ‘a new Holocaust to clear the filth from the country.’ ”

Greece has enough history with Right-wing extremism that the Golden Dawn’s words can not be dismissed as mere antics. The Nazi occupation of Greece during World War II, conducted through a Greek puppet government, caused hundreds of thousands to die of starvation, and tens of thousands more to be executed. An armed resistance movement, organized by Left groups but widely supported, gradually forced the Nazis to withdraw. A government was installed in Athens by the British, but the Communist-led resistance, having liberated the country, had strong support and could have taken power. Josef Stalin, however, ordered Greece’s Communists not to do so. In return, the British-backed government made mass arrests of resistance fighters while allowing Right-wing gangs to kill others by the thousands. In response, Communists resorted to an armed struggle, reversing themselves in a much less favorable position, touching off a civil war that crushed them and displaced millions, so furious was the counter-insurgency. The British heavily supported the régime it had installed while Stalin simply stood by because he did not want further tensions with his former World War II allies.

Execution, long imprisonment or exile became the fates of many Greeks. The Left was outlawed for three decades, and a period of disastrous Right authoritarian government culminated in the murderous military junta of the “four colonels” from 1967 to 1974. That junta imprisoned several thousand people just in its first month, many of whom were tortured, and imposed a brutal dictatorship. Although this history, completely entangled with Cold War politics, might seem to have no bearing on present-day Greek politics — and definitively rendered armed uprisings by the Left a relic of the past — it left Greece with a legacy of deep social divisions, a weak political center and an archaic class structure compounded by an exemption from paying taxes for the favored.

Considerable force was applied to provide Greece’s capitalists with large advantages. But although in recent decades they have been content to maintain their privileges via traditional legal means, the system they have been reliant on has become unstable. Stirring up nationalism has been a common method for the world’s privileged to maintain power, and nationalistic attitudes below can easily take a violent direction.

When fascists declare an intention to “clear the filth” and threaten violence, they mean it: Fascists speak with fists and weapons, not words and ideas. The showings of Len Pen and Golden Dawn are alarm bells are ringing, loudly. And fascists do not need a majority to seize power — Hitler never received more than a third of the vote and was appointed chancellor by German president Paul von Hindenburg; Mussolini never won more than a tiny percentage of votes. Force elevated them to power, with just enough people susceptible to their simplistic siren songs to provide the shock troops.

The Greek Left — split three ways among the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the Democratic Left — did score much higher than the extreme Right, a combined 31 percent of the vote, although this was at the low end of the 30 to 40 percent they had collectively polled during the past couple of months. Syriza finished second and only two percentage points behind the mainstream Right party, New Democracy. But because of a quirk in the Greek electoral system — otherwise a proportional-representation system requiring only three percent of the vote to enter parliament — the May 6 results rendered it impossible for the Greek Left to form a government by themselves, even if the parties could reconcile their significant differences.

That quirk is that the first-place finisher gets a bonus of 50 extra seats above what it earns from its proportional share of the vote. New Democracy, as the first-place winner, therefore was awarded 108 seats instead of 58 — a massive boost. Put another way, N.D. has more than a third of parliament’s 300 seats despite winning nineteen percent of the vote. That, in theory, made the most likely government to be formed a “grand coalition” of N.D. and the mainstream Left party, the “socialist” Pasok, plus at least one other because New Democracy and Pasok together finished short of a majority.

Such a government, to put it mildly, would be seen as illegitimate by Greeks — more than two-thirds voted against the two ruling parties and their policy of pitiless austerity. But that illegitimacy surely was not the reason that N.D. leader Antonis Samaras handed back his mandate to form a government after one day instead of using all three days he was granted to find willing coalition partners. There are two conclusions that can reasonably be drawn: Samaras does not actually want to govern, or he is calculating that nobody will be able to form a coalition and new elections will be called for June that he believes he will win by a greater margin.

The first scenario in the preceding sentence arises because, in essence, Samaras would have his bluffed called were he to become prime minister. The N.D. is Greece’s Big Business party, and has consistently boosted those interests while expanding its base through policies that enable Greece’s middle class professionals to avoid paying taxes the same as the rich and powerful. But its support, in practice, for austerity are a direct contrast to its verbal claims of opposition to austerity, a contradiction exposed by its “solution” to Greece’s crisis: tax cuts for businesses. The Big Business backers of New Democracy are too connected with business and financial interests elsewhere in Europe to abrogate the austerity agreements with the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Greeks voted against austerity. What did they vote for? That is not nearly so easy to answer.

Syriza, itself a coalition of Trotskyist, Maoist, Eurocommunist and other non-orthodox communist Leftists, has called for a coalition with the KKE and the Democratic Left, in contrast to the orthodox communist KKE that eschews working with other parties and the moderate Democratic Left that, during the electoral campaign, sought a coalition only on its terms. As Syriza won more votes than KKE and the Democratic Left combined, and as the party most willing to join hands with other anti-austerity parties, it might develop into a home for Greeks sick of austerity and willing to throw off the shackles of European Union financiers.

Syriza contains differing opinions on retaining the euro (although its leader, Alexis Tsipras, favors remaining in the eurozone) and definitively advocates remaining within the E.U. but with a thorough restructuring. Syriza demands a suspension in debt payments until the economy recovers, followed by a “selective” default; redistribution of wealth; and a re-orientation of priorities toward growth-inducing investment. A day after Syriza’s second-place finish, as multi-sided negotiations to form a government began, Tsipras told Athens News:

“We strongly believe that the country’s salvation will achieved through the rejection of these barbaric measures, through relief from recession and the looting of pensions and salaries, through the cancelation of austerity measures and their replacement with measures to boost the economy and tax built-up wealth so that funds are found to help the weaker sections (of society). … Our message of our people to European leadership is clear, the Greek people last night rejected the policy of austerity, as it is being rejected by all the peoples of Europe. The time has come for it to be withdrawn.”

Having been given the mandate to form a government as the leader of the second-place finisher after Samaras said he is unable to form one, the Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported that Tsipras’ coalition negotiations will center on these demands:

  • The immediate cancellation of all impending measures that will impoverish Greeks further, such as cuts to pensions and salaries.
  • The immediate cancellation of all impending measures that undermine fundamental workers’ rights, such as the abolition of collective labor agreements.
  • Reform of the electoral law and a general overhaul of the political system.
  • An investigation into Greek banks, and the immediate publication of the audit performed on the Greek banking sector by BlackRock.
  • The setting up of an international auditing committee to investigate the causes of Greece’s public deficit, with a moratorium on all debt servicing until the findings of the audit are published.

The “policy of austerity” has unquestionably suffered a “crushing defeat,” but without any consensus among Greeks as to what the alternative should be. Regardless of whether Greece leaves the eurozone and re-adopts its former national currency, the drachma, Greece’s future is in Europe. There is no Greek solution to Greece’s crisis, nor is there a French solution to France’s stagnation, nor a national solution to any other country’s economic malaise.

The only way forward for Europe is for a European Union radically different from the one that exists — an E.U. that is democratic and designed to benefit all peoples, not a dictatorial bureaucracy interested only in maintaining the fabulous wealth of a capitalist elite, in particular financiers, at the cost of everybody else.

In previous posts, I have summarized programs proposed by various economists, some envisioning Greece remaining in the eurozone and some envisioning Greece dropping the euro and returning to the drachma. What these programs have in common is a vision of a European-wide economic restructuring.

To summarize some of these ideas: The E.U. should be leveraged to internationalize the resistance of working people; full employment demanded as an explicit goal; banks should become publicly owned and democratically controlled so that capital is directed toward socially useful investment instead of speculation; a highly progressive taxation system should be coordinated at the E.U. level; wages raised to account for improved productivity that has, for three decades, gone to capitalists; governments should default at least some of their debts to banks; bank deposits should be guaranteed; and there should be more investment in education to enhance future productivity.

Some of these, or at least moderate versions of some of these, are articulated by the Greek Left. These are, however, yet to be articulated by European politicians elsewhere. Politicians such as Hollande argue for reforms within the current E.U. framework, not a break from that framework or even a strong questioning as to why ensuring profits to bond holders and speculators should be the highest principle of Europe and that entire countries should be immiserated for it.

Although a reformist, it can be said that Hollande came to advocate strong reforms, winning backing for ideas such as including a 75 percent tax rate on France’s highest earners, the hiring of new teachers and social spending to stimulate the economy. Sarkozy, on the other hand, dangerously adopted some of the arguments of Le Pen and her National Front party in a craven attempt to win her voters — thereby giving legitimacy to extremists who scapegoat immigrants and attack intellectuals. Such programs (and its equivalents elsewhere, including the “tea party” in the United States and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands) are demagogic attempts to deflect attention from the structural issues underlying economic malaise and the vast wealth inequalities that are destabilizing society. Although these have the appearance of grassroots “populist” movements, they are always supported by Big Business interests and are often, as is case with the “tea party,” lavishly funded by those interests.

Elections for the French parliament occur in mid-June, and that might provide more guidance as to where France is going. But the mainstream Center-Left governments of Europe that have imposed austerity have fallen just the same as Center-Right governments doing the same. It is possible that a spell of both applying roughly similar austerity policies will finally spark the rupture that is necessary. If that proves to be so, then we will be able to look back and say that Greece — having rejected both its major parties — arrived first. But a systemic break with the capitalist logic of austerity can only be an international movement: It is indisputable that “socialism in one country” can’t survive a hostile capitalist world, and a small country such as Greece all the more so could not survive as a socialist island in a capitalist Europe.

Inevitably, a post-capitalist Europe would be an example for the rest of the world, not excepting other advanced capitalist countries. I want to be clear here that I — and those whom I have summarized here and in previous posts — are advocating a democratic system, one much more democratic than currently exists. The 20th century’s top-down, state-owned and -controlled economic system that developed in the Soviet Union failed, and failed for real reasons — sufficient reasons can be found internally. Rather, what is advocated is cooperation in a decentralized economy.

Political democracy is not possible without economic democracy. Economic democracy is impossible without production being oriented toward human, community and social needs rather than private accumulation of capital. Everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody should be entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and collective decisions in turn should be made with community involvement.

A Left that can articulate a democratic vision of a better world can succeed. The signs are around us: the rapid assent of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, the electoral success of the Greek Left, the mounting fury around the world at a rigged capitalist system that is failing humanity. But a better world can only be made through international struggle and a radical vision of economic and political democracy. Such a task will not be easy: The rulers of the capitalist world have a panoply of weapons at their disposal (control of the workplace, the ability to fund groups to do their ideological bidding, seemingly limitless budgets for police and militaries among them) and a historical willingness to fund extreme Right movements when feeling threatened.

The breakthroughs of the extreme Right in France and Greece over the weekend are sober reminders that a descent into barbarism and dictatorship under conditions of scarcity is also a possible future if we do not find a way out of the ongoing economic malaise.

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