24 Jan 2015

Five last-minute thoughts about the Greek election

1. Athens is stripped of people. Real people anyway. There is a brigade-sized contingent of foreign leftists here to witness what they hope will be a Syriza victory, and an army of journalists, their suits still wrinkled from Davos, trying to squash this event into the logic of financial reporting.

Many Athenians, meanwhile, have gone to their villages to vote – elections here always being an excuse of a long weekend.

The rain has coated the sidewalks with a slick sheen, introducing the newcomers to the “logic” of modern Greece: the sidewalks are paved with a wholly inappropriate material that becomes slippery when wet.

Not even the pavement is fit for purpose.

Graft, inefficiency, indifference and a legal system that makes all mistakes impossible to correct are decades old and normal. What’s abnormal is the chance to blow it all away.

And that – by accident or design – is what Antonis Samaras gave the Greek left when he staged the fall of his own government over a constitutional technicality.

2. Once, while on a military campaign, the philosopher Socrates stood still for 24 hours, trying to think through a problem. A crowd of soldiers gathered around him, sleeping in the open, to see if he could work it out.

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Socrates would have been a good bloke to throw at the Greek elite – including its nascent members around the technocratic centre left and at the edges of Syriza – because he disdained money, reputation and family.

And it would not have taken him long to winkle out the inconsistencies of the forces lining up to bash each other if, as looks likely, Syriza wins on Sunday night.

One of Syriza’s leading economists, Yanis Varoufakis, told me yesterday he thought the potential for a clash with the European Central Bank (ECB) was small, once Syriza begins negotiating for a 50 per cent debt write off and abandons the austerity measures dictated in the 2011 Memorandum.

Mr Varoufakis argues that the ECB is a conservative organisation, and that to pick a death match with Syriza would involve it in the pro-active breakup of the eurozone. And in any case, the ECB is just one partner in the Troika of financial decision-making, which Syriza intends to divide and deflect.

Here’s another version of the logic, put to me by a rising politician of the Greek centre.

If the Greek government is not officially “in a programme” with the ECB by the time the Troika deal runs out on 28 February, it would be unlawful to carry on with the 40bn euro Emergency Lending Assistance (ELA) that is propping up the Greek banks.

Therefore the tempting prospect emerges for the Greek centre right: to let Syriza form a government; “do some gradnstanding at the Eurogroup” in February; and then unleash an ECB-triggered run on the Greek banks, by pulling ELA.

In the 2011 Memorandum there are clauses for “extraordinary circumstances” that would then allow the ECB to recapitalise the banks, but at the price of Syriza implementing the neoliberal reforms – to labour markets, welfare and state industries – that they currently oppose. Goodbye Tsipras, hello normal Greek politics.

A small amount of Socratic wisdom would indicate that either Syriza’s view of reality is myopic, or that of the doom-mongers is.

Only Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and ECB President Mario Draghi really know what their red lines are with a Syriza government. And they will probably finally draw them when they see a) the level of support Syriza gets on Sunday and b) how badly the Greek centre right falls apart once out of power.

(And let’s remember, for the Greek centrist parties, being out of power is going to be a bit like being a mosquito in a room full of insect repellant).

3. But there is a third logic: the logic of Greek popular expectations, struggle and volatility.

Syriza is not a mass activist party. In 2011 I saw some of its people – some of whom are now senior politicians – station themselves, arms linked, in the middle of a vicious fight between the riot police and anarchists.

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It was a visible symbol of what the party is good at: passive resistance and the moral high-ground (and messaging).

But Syriza’s popularity, and the sudden popularity of electoral politics, came after three years of street-level resistance and social breakdown.

The party’s own left is in voluntary purdah, and the mass movements that support Syriza – the antifascists, the unions, the social solidarity networks – are holding back from confrontation with the authorities.

But no party like Syriza has ever governed a state like Greece. This is a country where the police have persistent problems with far right infiltration and indiscipline, where there is a strange anarco-terrorist group, and all kinds of remnants of the deep state created in the cold war.

The last actual riot here was launched to commemorate the fall of the military Junta – and there was viciousness on both sides. Rioters took to the rooftops and hurled objects at the cops, and the police – one witness told me today – were dragging people out of shops, trashing cafes and issuing threats of sexual violence to women.

Nothing will be investigated because, in the old Greece, it never is.

If, by Wednesday, there is a Syriza — or Syriza nominated — minister of security, then, even though the party has back-burnered its promise to abolish the riot police, some sweeping reform of the public order apparatus is likely, and could be just one of many potential points of friction between the government and the state.

4. It is possible to reverse engineer Syriza’s objective, and ask: what would need to happen for Greece to achieve debt relief under a government whose micro-economic policies are the opposite of what debt relief is supposed to “buy”?

Syriza wants more of the state, more welfare, higher wages, less privatisation — and the ECB and International Monetary Fund want the opposite.

The answer would be: Mrs Merkel, under presure from Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande, stamps out any attempt by Mr Draghi and the ECB to kill the Greek banks.

To avoid the danger of miscommunication, this would have to be done quickly and clearly sometime in February — because though there is no bank run, there have been 8 billion euros withdrawn from Greece in the past week, and about 10 per cnet of GDP since the election uncertainty began in December.

What would make Mrs Merkel override her former finance minister Wolfgang Schauble and the rest of the ECB hawks?

The threat of losing half of peripheral Europe to Syriza-style leftist goverments is one part of the answer: Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain’s left-wing¬†Podemos party, said in perfect Greek on Thursday night, to an ecstatic crowd, that “a wind of change is blowing through Europe”.

The other part of the answer is the threat of a right-led breakup of the eurozone and the EU, with Britain’s Ukip, the Front National in France and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netehrlands all profiting from the eurozone’s stasis.

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But suppose the ECB and the European Commission, in this dream scenario for the left, gave the green light to a Greek debt write off: they would effectively be executing the Greek political centre and putting their money on Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza leadership to become a left-technocratic modernising force.

This is Syriza’s secret hope – hence the massive emphasis on anti-corruption drives and tax evasion (see for example my interview with Yanis Varoufakis on Friday).

If I had to put money on this happening, I would not stake much. The European elite has shown no propensity to move from its economic orthodoxy, and very little tactical nous.

The bigger chance is that heterodox parties of the left and right do take over – or set the agenda as in the UK – and that this is just Act I of the political centre’s loss of control over the Euro project.

5. Five summers of crisis have left Exharchea, the student-anarchist bohemian district of Athens, layered with graffiti.

It is the last of the great bohemias: resisting the gentrificaation that ate London’s Soho, Russia’s Arbat and New York’s Lower East Side by night after night of barricade fighting and random attacks on TV news crews.

It is impossible to imagine its walls white again, and its cafes inhabited again by concert pianists and backgammon obsessives, for whom politics was nothing and the poetry of Greek wordsmith CP Cavafy everything.

As each year passes the haunted looks get more haunted in the all-night souvlaki shops where young men and women come to spend tiny amounts of money and smoke themselves to breathlessness.

I was there this week, in a restaurant, when the lights went out and a couple started having a vicious argument.

“It’s a play,” explained the waitress, and with the true Greek appetite for drama it lasted a full 40 minutes.

Later I met an activist – a woman aged 27 – who is trained as a teacher, but now works as a table waitress, a flyer distributer, a babysitter and a forger of student essays.

Some months she earns 800 euros, in others nothing.

She is a classic member of the precariat, a class existing without predictability or security – and there are tens of thousands like her. She won’t be voting Syriza but instead for one of the extreme left parties currently on around 1 per cent.

Next to us, on the wall was a fresh graffiti. I’ll let it speak for itself:

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But what it says to me is that if you subject a generation to the kind of economic and moral wastage that 60 per cent youth unemployment implies, and a one-third drop in real incomes, they tend to blame not just the ruling party but the entire system.

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