An Irish engagement with the Greek crisis

To the crucible: an Irish engagement with the Greek crisis and the Greek left

By Helena Sheehan

January 21, 2013 — Irish Left Review, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal at the author’s suggestion and with her permission — A monumental drama is playing out before our eyes. It is a true Greek tragedy. The plot: A society is being pushed to its limits. The denouement is not yet determined, but survival is at stake and prospects are precarious. Greece is at the sharp end of a radical and risky experiment in how far accumulation by dispossession can go, how much expropriation can be endured, how far the state can be subordinated to the market. It is a global narrative, but the story is a few episodes ahead here.

Greece is the crucible.1 It is a caldron where concentrated forces are colliding in a process that will bring forth either a reconfiguration of capitalism or the dawn of its demise.

Salaries, pensions, public services are falling, while prices and taxes are rising. Massive asset stripping is underway. Water, power, ports, islands, public buildings are for sale. Unemployment, emigration and evictions have brought a sense of a society unraveling. Homeless people wander the streets and scavenge for food in bins or beg it from the plates of those eating in tavernas. If they are immigrants, they are terrorised. Those looking into a horizon without hope either drift into desolation or perform the ultimate decisive act of suicide. Some have done so in private spaces, while others have chosen public places to underline the political nature of their fate, as they jump from heights, set themselves on fire or shoot themselves. In April 2012, Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist, who felt he could no longer live a dignified life after his pension had been slashed, shot himself in front of parliament. His last words were: “I am not committing suicide. They are killing me.” He urged younger people to fight.

Speaking to Greeks, it is hard to find any without a far-reaching systemic critique. They tell you so many details of the deceits of the troika, the corruption of government, the decline in their own standards of living, the pervasive sense of social disintegration. When asked if they see any hope, few answer in the affirmative.

Nevertheless, some do. It is a precarious hope. For some, it is hesitant and weak, full of doubt, but a faint sense of some possible breakthrough from the morass. They protest, they march, they strike, even if they sometimes feel as if they are just going through the motions, because they do it so often now. They are not sure what it will take to break this cycle and move it on to another level, but they know it cannot go on as it is. For others, hope is clearer and stronger, although not without doubt and not without a sense of nearly overwhelming forces that could swamp all their best efforts. These are the ones who are not only critiquing and resisting, but also strategising and organising for a social transformation that would chart a path out of the crisis, ultimately a new path out of capitalism and to socialism. Conscious of all previous attempts that have crashed and burned or have betrayed the hopes they engendered, they are sober about their chances, but determined in their work.

Ireland and Greece

The forces swirling around Greece are swirling around us all. In Ireland we watch Greece very closely. We do so with different degrees of trepidation, terror, hope and inspiration. The crisis brought the troika first to Greece and then to Ireland. Our successive governments, and indeed many of our fellow citizens, have been keen to make the point that we are not Greece. Although all measures enforced on us point in the same direction, the idea is that we’ll be compliant and it will go better for us. The narrative of Irish exceptionalism has prevailed. It was put to me on a radio programme: “We don’t want to be like Greece, do we?” I couldn’t agree. Naturally I don’t want wages and pensions and social services to plunge so low and for poverty and suicide to blight even more lives, but I do want us to resist in such massive numbers. Moreover, I do want us to have an alternative on offer such as what I see shaping up in Greece.

In international TV coverage of demonstrations in Greece, we saw a banner declaring “We are not Ireland” and we heard of protesters chanting “We are not Ireland. We will resist.” It stung. Those of us who are resisting felt acutely our failure to mobilise sufficient numbers to put up the resistance the situation required. Nevertheless, the Irish left has looked with respect and solidarity at the Greek resistance and continued in our efforts to up our game here. The United Left Alliance (ULA) organised a meeting where Syriza MP Despina Charalampidou spoke. Few remarked upon it, but I was aware of how impossible it would have been in previous decades to haveTtrotskyists sharing a platform so harmoniously with a left eurocommunist. On the day before the June election in Greece, we held a demonstration of solidarity with Greece on O’Connell Street, which was initiated by people associated with the occupy movement and inclined to be sceptical of electoral politics. Although it was to support the Greek resistance and not Syriza specifically, there was strong support for Syriza in evidence. I spoke at it myself in this vein.

The whole world was watching

International focus on Greece had soared when Syriza came second in the May 2012 election, leaping from 4.6% to 17%, with polls indicating that it could come first in another election to be held in June. Massive media attention ensured that all eyes were on Greece during this interval. The global elite warned of the dangers. Indeed it could be construed as international intimidation. RTE, Ireland’s public service broadcaster, adopted the tone of the masters of the universe as they reported the situation in Greece. Although most international commentators were warning the Greek people not to vote for Syriza, an article in Forbes magazine advocated “Give Greece what it deserves: Communism … What the world needs, lest we forget, is a contemporary example of Communism in action.”2

As it turned out, although Syriza leapt to 27%, it came second again to New Democracy, which formed a coalition government with Pasok and Dimar, two supposedly left parties. The international media, which was giving Greece saturation coverage between the two elections, then turned their attention elsewhere. The left has kept its eyes on Greece, however, and watched, as Syriza rose in the polls, consistently coming out the highest party and raising the prospect that Syriza will win the next election.

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