Monday, October 23, 2017

Greece at the Crossroads: Epilogue


In July or 2015, a few days after Tsipras’s betrayal of the referendum, my partner and I found ourselves in  the tiny village of Komitata on the Ionian island of Kefallonia.  In the one café at the center of the village we listened to Tsipras explaining his decision on television.  I subsequently wrote about this event in the book of essays we published titled ‘Greece at the Crossroads’. [1]
This past August we returned to Kefallonia and paid a visit to the café and its owner, Tasso.  He is a man in his 60’s who opened the café after retiring from a job he held for many years in the island’s capital, Argostoli. It was a little over two years since that evening when we first met Tasso and I was curious to know what he thought about the events of July 2015 and the present situation in Greece.

The past two years have witnessed a political stalement in Greece following the shock experienced by many of Tsipras's betrayal of the referendum of July 2015.  Since winning the hastily called election of September of 2015, the Syriza-ANEL coalition government, now purged of its troublesome left wing, has fully embraced its role as the instrument of EU imposed austerity on the working class of Greece. Tsipras’s poll numbers are at an all-time low since the heady days of January 2015 when Syriza first came to power. The journalist Helena Smith writes, 

The fallout from the U-turn has been colossal. Syriza’s popularity has plummeted; Tsipras’s own ratings have nosedived. Some polls show the leftists trailing by as many as 16 points, others less, but all seem to reflect a view that the charismatic politician “lied” by adopting the virulent neoliberal budget cuts and tax rises he had once vowed to overturn. [2] 

There is however little love for the opposition New Democracy. And the opposition is in no hurry to call new elections even though they would likely win.  They would rather sit back and let Syriza take responsibility for the cuts that are being imposed on Greece as a result of the Third Memorandum Agreement.

In the meantime Tsipras has been bragging to the foreign press that thanks to his leadership Greece has finally “turned the corner” and the economy is now growing. [3]  In a follow-up article in September, Guardian correspondent Helena Smith, expressing some skepticism about Tsipras’s claims to have turned the corner on the economic crisis, wrote of him,

To the delight of many, nonetheless, Tsipras, the man who set Europe ablaze with Marxist ideology and anti-austerity rage back in the heady days of January 2015, is becoming more pragmatic by the day. The 42-year-old’s embrace of the free-market policies he once abhorred was cemented last Sunday, when he announced that he would personally oversee the foreign investment drive now viewed as key to curing the curse of Greece’s unemployment rate. [4]

When we arrived in Greece in late June the entire country was in the middle of a trash collectors strike.  The strike, with over 10,000 part time employees participating, was in reaction to planned layoffs that will eventually destroy 150,000 government jobs. [5] The air in the streets of Athens was becoming increasingly putrid as the synergy between an unbearable heat wave and the rotting garbage left in the street took its toll. All this was the background to our return to the café in Komitata.

We sat with Tasso at a table on the plaza outside his café while we talked.  I asked him first of all how he would characterize his politics and what was his reaction to the events of July 2015.  In response to his political leanings, Tasso answered with a question of his own,

“Did you see the wall of my café?”

I took a quick peek inside the café and noticed three items on the wall; a clock, an iconic poster of Che Guevara, and a decoration of a hammer and sickle. Only instead of the hammer, Tasso had hung on the wall the traditional “worry beads” (κομπολόι). Tasso explained that the beads were his father’s, who took comfort in them when he was imprisoned during the Civil War.  Almost everywhere you turn in Greece, there are images pregnant with the history of the class struggle if you know where to look.

The wall in the café 

Tasso continued,

“We all had hope when Syriza won the election (in January of 2015).  We were very happy with the results of the referendum.  But then the ‘NO” became a “YES”. We couldn’t believe it!”

I then asked Tasso, “If there was a new election called tomorrow, who would you vote for?”

Tasso replied, “I would vote for the Far Left”.  He clarified this by saying he meant anyone to the left of Syriza, someone who would genuinely oppose the austerity.   I asked if he meant a group like ANTARSYA, to which he replied, “Yes”. 

Tasso then asked me about my politics, and I replied that I am a Trotskyist.  Tasso then said,
“We have a Trotskyist in the village”. 

Tasso

I was astounded by Tasso's response since this village is in a remote part of a remote island, on the highest point of a one lane country road that winds its way through a mountain, far from the more popular tourist destinations in the Aegean such as Santorini or Mykonos.  There are no more than a dozen or so year round residents in this village.

The outside of Tasso's café

This past week, back in New York, I saw Tsipras on television in a joint news conference with Trump. While ostensibly on a mission to encourage foreign investment in Greece, Tsipras announced that a deal had been worked out for Greece to invest in American made military hardware to modernize its Air Force and beef up its military base in Crete.  Trump also praised Greece for devoting at least 2% of its GDP to its military, in fulfillment of its NATO commitment.  It is difficult to imagine a more candid representation of the complete betrayal of the Greek working class than this image of Tsipras embracing Trump.


Tsipras and Trump

The other side of this dismal picture however is the determination of the Greek working class. The betrayal of the referendum was a huge shock and unquestionably set in a period of demoralization. But the working class, though battered, has not been defeated. Nothing has been resolved. Despite Tsipras's happy talk, there is no economic recovery in sight. Greece's debt load of €340bn, or 180% of GDP is by any estimate competely unsustainable no matter how deep the austerity goes. The average income of a Greek household has dropped by 40% since the start of the economic crisis and unemployment remains amost 22% with youth unemployment much higher.  Pensioners continue to see their benefits cut to the point where the comfortable middle class life that they anticipated in their dreams has been turned into the  nightmare of a daily struggle for survival.

We are now in a period of anticipation before the next outbreak of the class struggle.  If you have any doubts about that just make a trip to the village of Komitata and have a talk with Tasso.

Alex Steiner
October 23, 2017 






[1]  See my political memoir, Greece at the Crossroads, Part I, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2015/08/greece-at-crossroads-part-i.html
and Greece at the Crossroadds, Part II,
[2]  Helena Smith interview with Alexis Tsipras, Alexis Tsipras: 'The worst is clearly behind us', July 24, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/24/alexis-tsipras-the-worst-is-clearly-behind-us
[3]  Helena Smith, Ibid.
[4]  Helena Smith, The eurozone may be back on its feet. But is Greece?, Sept. 16, 2017,
[5]  For an account of the background to the strike see, Greek waste disposal workers strike against mass layoffs,

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