22 Jun 2015

Why the words ‘civil war’ are no longer a joke in Greece

Here’s the situation as the Eurogroup on Greece is underway. On Sunday the Greek cabinet met and decided to make a further retreat on the fiscal targets their lenders want them to meet.

There’s a gap of about €2bn between the two sides, and this latest move fills €1bn of it. This is by putting up the VAT rate on electricity, cutting the pensions of better-off pensioners, reducing early retirement rights quicker than planned, a one-off tax on companies with turnover above half a million, and closing tax loopholes.

However, the real change is in the tone on debt relief. Alexis Tsipras has always argued that any deal done now should form the framework of a future discussion on rescheduling Greece’s debts. Until Sunday this was a red-line issue. Now I understand the Greek government would accept a form of words that pledged to address this in future; and an un-named EU official has said this is likely.

The problem is, these extra measures are effectively “left austerity” – changes of the kind the lenders don’t like, hitting the rich harder than the poor. So even if they accept they could help balance Greece’s books, they might still object that they are not sustainable.

But the background to this final concession is ominous.

Tsipras (pictured above) and his team are under huge pressure from within Syriza, and from within the 47 per cent of voters who, when polled last week, said they would vote for Syriza. The pressure comes verbally, in constant text messages from constituents, and from a group within the parliamentary party known as the 53 group.

These are grassroots “modernised” left-wingers – and their 53+ MPs, combined with around 30 or so from the pro-Grexit Left Platform, have enough support and willpower to reject any deal that looks like humiliation.

Controlling Syntagma Square

So Tsipras and his cabinet went to Brussels to make one more big concession, but fully prepared to endure an unwilling “rupture” with lenders, leading to the imposition of capital controls and a default, if they judge lenders are actually trying to humiliate them and force them to the exit.

They understand the likely chaos would not just be economic. The second of the pro-euro demonstrations is due to be held tonight. So far has the mood darkened between this essentially right-wing, pro-austerity movement and the mass base of Syriza that it has in the past week become routine for people to start throwing around the words “civil war”, and no longer in the jokey way they used to.

People fear, sooner or later, that the left and right will stop alternating their demonstrations in Syntagma Square and start vying for control of it.

As I’ve explained before, this is because the election of Syriza triggered kind of recovered memory syndrome on both sides of politics, about the cold war and fascist collaboration and dictatorship in the 1970s.

‘Not ready’

Syriza as a party faces a dilemma. It knows that, should the banks close, there would soon be queues at supermarkets and pharmacies. It knows there could be social chaos into which the grassroots party structures would have to intervene – if only to expand their soup kitchen and advice centres and try to calm things down.

But its entire evolution as a left-wing party has been away from confrontation with the state and towards the “long march” through the institutional strategy of the New Left, as advocated by Syriza’s intellectual guru, the late Marxist intellectual Nicos Poulantzas. (coincidentally, in a debate with Ed Miliband’s father).

So while, as a party, its members are in their majority minded to demand rejection of the coming deal, they also know – as several activists have put it to me – that they are “not ready” for the situation.

And, of course, neither are those of the right and centre-right. One person going on tonight’s pro-EU demo, and fearful of the passions being expressed on both sides, told me: thank god we have social media – we can fight each other there.

All sides in tonight’s Eurogroup need to understand that, if today’s talks fail, and fail so badly that the ECB pulls the plug on the system, this will stop being a story about economics and become, front and centre, a story of civil society, politics and the rule of law.

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19 reader comments

  1. Charles Smyth says:

    One has to wonder why it is that The Greek electorate insist on driving the politics of Greece towards this outcome.

    1. Bill says:

      you will find the aswer by asking yourself how we got her in the first place…

    2. LLX says:

      Try living in dire poverty for five years, with no access to electricity or health care, and maybe you will cease to wonder.

    3. Sotiris says:

      Because we have been fed up with fruitless politics of austerity that have led us to nowhere. 5 years of MoUs without solutions in unemployment, corruption and political nepotism. Structural deformations still exist, thus there have been no political will to substantial reforms.Many greeks felt it was time for a left political turn, perhaps for eventually “left” austerity yes but at the same time for a large dose of new hope…Greetings from Athens,Greece.

    4. Gearóid says:

      Seriously? The Greek electorate are to blame for this impasse? Not the intransigence of the Troika?

    5. Nick Bradshaw says:

      Perhaps its the fear of death that the cuts will bring, rather than more profits for bankers who actually caused this crisis if the cuts are carried out. Logical really.

    6. JohnH says:

      I think Paul has explained the reasons behind this before. If the Greek Government agrees to the conditions imposed on it by the creditors it is unlikely the Greek Economy will recover in the next several decades. If they are forced to exit because no agreement can be reached then it is likely that chaos and the inevitable political instability will have a devastating impact on Greece. There’s no silver bullet and likely pain and chaos and possibly violence for Greece which ever way it goes. Interestingly there was an article in the USA Journal Foreign Policy this week saying that the conditions being imposed on Greece were too tough and that the European leaders had completely mishandled the crisis. This doesn’t say Greece should be let off the hook but there needs to be a consideration of how its economy will improve and massive austerity is not likely to be the solution.

    7. Derek says:

      You think someone is actually driving this? There’s no one at the wheel. Neither is there an agreed destination.

  2. Alan says:

    Rather a scaremongering article at best. Which hedge fund vultures and financial terrorists are keeping this burning and to what end? We assume that irrespective of the outcome the instigators will profit. The history of the IMF and ‘protected’ investors appear to cancel out any analysis other than continued looting.

  3. anon says:

    my feeling is that there will be a deal even if the Euro people slip the money under the counter to Greece; The Greeks just have to remember that they can walk away, whereas the Euro people cannot, as it would trigger far wider problems,

  4. Jezzah says:

    If the Eurogroup actually understand that, they have shown little sign so far, and seem to imagine that endless rejection of Syriza’s olive branches will simply result in regime change and a return of the pliable but hopelessly corrupt ND government whose spokesperson was allowed free reign to her fantasies on the balcony on C4 news this evening. What seems at least as likely is a breakdown exploited by Golden Dawn, whose support in the police and armed forces has been a constant embarrassment, and a resurgence of the authoritarian tendencies which led to the junta. Perhaps Schauble should reflect on this the next time he seeks to further his obstructionist agenda, as he did today, declaring that “no progress has been made since Thursday”, even as Dijsselbloem, no dove, was welcoming the Greek proposals.

  5. dandraka says:

    “The problem is, these extra measures are effectively “left austerity” – changes of the kind the lenders don’t like, hitting the rich harder than the poor.”

    Seriously mr. Mason, have you read the proposals at all?

  6. Klaus Kastner says:

    I was always fascinated when reading about the Greek Civil War. When ELAS did not reach its goals after the First Round, there was an “there will be a Second Round”. After that Second Round failed again, it was “there will be a Third Round”. And then they had to accept humiliation.

    The domestic politics of Greece have for quite some time reminded me of the above. In parts of SYRIZA, my intuition recognizes a lot of the mentality/languague etc. of the early ELAS. It seemed like they were now going for the Fourth Round hoping for a different outcome than in the previous rounds. I tested my intuition with Yanis Varoufakis expecting him to tell me that I was crazy. Instead, he answered: “The civil war is in us, deeply embedded in our cultural and spiritual DNA”.

  7. keith Lawrence says:

    We in the UK need to consider what happens when we reject austerity and continue to live far beyond our means. Our dept to the rest of the world now stands at ‘one point five TRILLION POUND’ 1.5 TRILLION. I dout if we can afford to pay the vast monthly interest let alone pay down the dept. That’s why the dept keeps growing. Our Social services shrink as the staggering amount interest we pay grows daily.
    Unless this generation deals with this pending disaster our children and there offspring are going to end up in the same position as the Greeks, nationally BANKRUPT and living in poverty.
    Look and Learn Britain, Look and learn.

    1. David says:


      Th UK’s National Debt is in sterling. As with the USA, Japan, Canada etc etc the UK can manufacture its own currency – it is, therefore, impossible for the UK to become ‘bankrupt’. 25% of the debt (specified in sterling) is held by foreign investors, the remainder is held by UK citizens & companies. Of that remainder 25% is owed to the Bank of England. Guess who owns & controls the Bank of England? Yes we owe 25% of the National Debt to the state!

      At the moment the National Debt is about 90% of National Income. At the end of WW2 the debt was well above 200%. I can assure you that the so called ‘baby boomers’ have had the best living standards ever.

  8. Vera says:

    I think we should call things as they are: the past years Greece has been ‘occupied’ by the troika. This is a war with a serious death toll if you look at the suicide numbers.

  9. pana says:

    Dear SYRIZA advocate(s), just out of curiousity: Whose side would the ulra right ultra nationalist ANEL clientele fight on, the right or the left ?

  10. Rob says:

    ”the “long march” through the institutional strategy of the New Left”

    Ah! And what a success that has proved to be in the UK.

    What exactly has it given us? Social liberalism and mass immigration – or as I call the latter, globalisation on the door step of the West’s most battered working class.

    It’s no wonder the European left is on its knees with leaders, ideologues and journalists like this. They don’t resist neoliberalism, they entrench it.

  11. Cos67 says:

    Sorry but it will be a long time before Greeks grab their guns for civil war.
    They know that whoever the troika chooses for a coup d’etat has power
    behind him.
    At some point, Greeks will stop caring about the danger, and grab their guns.
    A few more years of toppling governments and we’ll see. If the Euro lasts that long.
    It’s still not easy to think of violence after the Civil war of 44-48.

    This whole kabuki show will start to scare everybody in the Eurozone, or at least it should,
    and then the game is up.

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