'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, June 14, 2012

SYRIZA and the American Left 

Pham Binh of the The North Star asked me, along with several others, to submit a post about the significance of the success of SYRIZA in Greece. Please go here to read all of the offerings, which should be posted by early next week. Here's what I sent to him:

What Can American Leftists Learn from the Success of SYRIZA?

Even now, the significance of SYRIZA’s success in the recent Greek parliamentary election is not well understood. While leftists bicker over whether SYRIZA is reformist (ones senses the ghosts of the German SPD Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Italian PCI Communist Party (PCI) lingering in the background), Greek workers are beginning to sever past political relationships under the pressure of the brutal austerity being imposed upon them. They are gravitating towards radical left parties, with SYRIZA in the forefront. In May, these parties received a combined vote unprecedented in post-war Greek history. On June 17th, these parties are likely to receive even more votes, perhaps so many that SYRIZA will have the opportunity to form a leftist, anti-austerity government.

While we await the election result, SYRIZA has already accomplished something that years of anti-authoritarian confrontation on the streets of Athens has failed to do: it has terrified the neoliberal elites of Europe. Along with the contemporaneous election of Socialist Party candidate Hollande in France, SYRIZA is forcing these elites to confront the prospect of a reinvigorated left if the European Union and the International Monetary Fund continue to insist upon austerity. President Obama perceives the peril as well, as he is trying to persuade German Chancellor Merkel to relent in her opposition to measures that could marginally ameliorate the crisis.

SYRIZA, more accurately described as the “Coalition of the Radical Left”, first emerged as a national electoral participant in 2004 after various components of the Greek left acknowledged that they could work together against neoliberalism despite other differences. It is arguably the most successful organization to emerge out of the anti-globalization efforts of the late 1990s, if one measures success by its survival and expanding base within the Greek electorate. Starting in 2004 with over 3.3% of the vote, it has consistently increased its share of the electorate in subsequent elections, garnering a second-place finish with nearly 17% of the vote and 52 members of the Greek parliament in the May 6 elections. With this most recent breakthrough, it now has a European, if not global, voice, as most recently demonstrated by media coverage of SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras’ trip to Paris where he condemned austerity as a catastrophe for Europe.

It is easy for anti-authoritarians of both the Marxist and anarchist kind to dismiss SYRIZA. We all know the arguments: the electoral process is a sham, SYRIZA will get co-opted, capitalists will exploit SYRIZA to legitimize this ongoing reorganization of the global economy to the detriment of the working class. I know them because I have developed a similar perspective about the U.S. political system, especially after the brazen embrace of finance capital by Barack Obama after running for president as a progressive, reformist candidate. Upon hearing these objections, one imagines Tsipras attending Davos, participating in a forum with George Soros and Gerhard Schroeder, with Bill Clinton praising him for his intelligence and pragmatism.

Perhaps, this will happen, perhaps not. But this perspective about SYRIZA is narrow and misguided.

Regardless of the future of SYRIZA, there is much to be learned from its experience. SYRIZA has been able to attract the support of working class and some middle class Greeks, and continues to do so. It is an example of a relatively inclusive political organization that, because of its focus upon the intensifying economic distress of Greeks, has become more and more influential. It speaks to the reality of daily life in a society where people are struggling to survive, with a program consciously designed to alleviate their suffering. Not surprisingly, there are those on the left who malign this program as “reformist.”.

If only I, and millions of other Americans, could be “victimized” by such reforms! We would be living in something akin to a Scandinavian Scandinavian-style social democracy, which, while beset with its own contradictions, would constitute a substantial improvement in living conditions. But this is a digression that accepts the boundaries of this cramped debate about SYRIZA in relation to participation in the electoral process. Instead, the lack of any political formation in the U.S. comparable to SYRIZA is the much more pressing problem. If Americans are confronted with an economic collapse comparable to what has transpired in Greece, how will they respond? A cursory examination of recent American history suggests that many will accept populist, right-wing explanations for their predicament, as they have often done since the late 1970s. U.S. radicals should therefore look to SYRIZA for guidance as to how to achieve unanimity around a program that engages millions of Americans already impoverished by austerity. Such an effort is not necessarily in conflict with anti-authoritarian practice.

For example, the late Colin Ward advocated an inclusive form of anarchism that could assist in this endeavor. Ward believed that there was a perpetual struggle between the centralization of power and its dispersal through people and organizations capable of fulfilling the needs of society non-hierarchically. He identified strongly with the lived experience of people within their communities, and proposed policies that prioritized their ability to address their problems themselves. He refused to wait for revolutionary conditions for the creation of anarchist institutions, and conceded that a world dominated solely by anarchist practice might be a sterile one.

One of the most striking aspects of Ward’s vision was his refusal to stereotypically dismiss large parts of the population as being inherently hostile to anarchist principles of social organization. Where others saw weeds, he found hidden flowers. It is an attitude that is lacking among leftists in the U.S. While many in Occupy have made efforts in this direction, there is still much to be done. There is an urgent need to find points of agreement within a pluralistic world of participation. If SYRIZA had not done so, it would be moribund today.

This is the essential concept that we must grasp from SYRIZA’s success.

Such an effort requires a willingness to communicate directly with people that is now almost absent in the U.S., a willingness to speak with them candidly and without preconditions about their social experiences. This is the promise that still remains within Occupy, even after its suppression. If fulfilled, we could develop support for a program of economic intervention and demilitarization that empowers people to govern their own communities, and thereby take a small step towards the implementation of Ward’s utopian vision.

Given the rigidity of the U.S. electoral process, it is likely that such a movement will invariably grow outside the electoral process. SYRIZA is a coalition in a country with somewhere around 11 million people. In other words, Greece has about twice the number of people as the San Francisco Bay Area. Hence, any effort to replicate SYRIZA in the U.S. would require a daunting organizational effort, one that would require incomprehensible amounts of money and volunteer time. But SYRIZA remains an example of what is possible if people organize within a reasonably sized community. Any effort of this kind should be measured by a simple standard: the extent to which it expands participation with a recognition of the inherent violence and inequality of American society.

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