The Greek government led by the radical left coalition, SYRIZA, has voted to accept what amounts to a third memorandum, or as former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis rightfully called it, “a new Versailles Treaty.” The final tally in the Greek parliament was: 229 yes, 64 no, 6 abstentions, 1 absent; of the 64 no votes, 38 of them came from SYRIZA (which has a total of 149 seats in parliament).
The most common reaction to this defeat on the English-speaking left internationally has been to label SYRIZA’s leader and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras a traitor. Or a dupe, a fool, a moron, a sellout, a coward, a utopian — you get the idea.
The most common argument among this crowd is that Tsipras should have prepared to get Greece out of the common currency known as the Eurozone by restoring the country’s national currency, the Drachma, and that it was unforgivably naïve to expect — much less fight for — a better, less austerity-laden deal from the European Union (EU). By failing to do so, they say, he betrayed his mandate repeatedly. SYRIZA won the 2015 elections based on an anti-austerity platform and the Greek people overwhelmingly and resoundingly rejected the austerity conditions put forward by the EU in exchange for more bailouts in a referendum during the first week of July.
There are two big problems with this line of thinking.
1. There is a world of difference between saying “uncle” after you’ve been beaten and tortured for months and surrendering without a fight. What previous Greek governments did was the latter of these two options. SYRIZA, by contrast, has been fighting non-stop at the negotiating table for almost six months to end or at least mitigate austerity, to secure the debt relief that even the International Monetary Fund says is unavoidable, and to make the economy grow again so that the country can escape the debt-deflation death spiral it has been stuck in since 2009. In the past five years, there have been 33 general strikes against governments led by the pro-austerity parties, PASOK and New Democracy, and SYRIZA’s ascension to power was the political expression and logical outcome of this revolt. Finally, anti-austerity forces would be in command of the state and state policy.
Tsipras’ defeat at the bargaining table and SYRIZA’s subsequent vote to accept the terms of this defeat do not mean that SYRIZA is pro-austerity in the sense that PASOK and New Democracy are or that there is no meaningful difference between them. They were crushed and they were beaten only because they fought in the first place. They surrendered only after the EU shut down Greece’s banking system and threatened the country with an engineered humanitarian crisis. A SYRIZA-led government is still far and away better than a PASOK or New Democracy government even with the yoke of the third memorandum around their necks because SYRIZA’s policies on immigrants, state repression of protests, and police reform are qualitatively more progressive and more advantageous for the struggles of working people and oppressed groups. So despite all the talk about Tsipras and treason, SYRIZA’s left is not considering splitting from the party because splitting runs the risk of putting New Democracy back in power, a huge backwards.
2. Exiting the Eurozone and restoring the Drachma was never an acceptable option for any major political force in Greece except for the Nazis known as Golden Dawn — 84% wanted to keep the Euro as of six days ago even after the no vote in the referendum. Grexit has never attracted significant minority support much less cohered into a class-based political trend. Why? For the same reason that human beings don’t chew off their arms and legs to escape from bear traps — it’s too bloody, too painful, and too difficult to actually go through with even though theoretically and logically it might be the right thing to do.
The program of SYRIZA’s Left Platform simply skates over the extreme short- and medium-term difficulties involved in restoring the Drachma and talks up all the wonderful benefits that will supposedly emerge after an unknowable period of time. Varoufakis, who as finance minister actually advocated serious, transitional steps to make restoring the Drachma easier as a last-ditch defense against EU intransigence, wasn’t so sanguine:
“To exit, we would have to create a new currency from scratch. In occupied Iraq, the introduction of new paper money took almost a year, 20 or so Boeing 747s, the mobilisation of the US military’s might, three printing firms and hundreds of trucks. In the absence of such support, Grexit would be the equivalent of announcing a large devaluation more than 18 months in advance: a recipe for liquidating all Greek capital stock and transferring it abroad by any means available.”
Most of the pro-Drachma talk comes from people outside of Greece, from people who would not have to shoulder the burdens of suffering through the Drachma-driven austerity (Drausterity) they advocated for Greeks. As Greek journalist Alex Andreou put it:
“How easy brave decisions are when you have no skin in the game, when you are not counting down, as I am, the last twenty-four doses of the medication which prevents your mother from having seizures.”
Even thoughtful commentators such as John Halle have fallen into wishful thinking on the Drachma issue. In a post discussing “Two Mistakes and Two Lessons of SYRIZA,” he argued that growing vegetable gardens would help combat the famine that would inevitably ensue from leaving the Eurozone monetary union as bank runs, economic chaos, and massive inflation continually wipe out the value of the newly introduced currency and make wages and pensions progressively worth less and less. While growing vegetables might help solve some of the hunger problem, it wouldn’t solve the problem of how a rapidly depreciating currency could be used to pay for Greece’s top two imports — fuel and medicine — both of which are necessary for life in 21st century Europe. Presumably the Drachma’s reintroduction would not change the fact that fuel would still be necessary to get vegetables from the growers to the hungry and presumably Greeks should not be forced to live in the Dark Ages ‘free’ of modern medicine.
To these difficult problems the Drachma advocates have no answers because there are no answers, or at least not socially acceptable ones. The Tsipras government knew this and acted accordingly. Undoubtedly, Varoufakis’ retaliatory measures — unilaterally declaring haircuts on Greek bonds held by the European Central Bank (ECB) in response to the ECB starving Greek banks of cash, issuing Euro-denominated IOUs — should have been tried. However, these steps would have only delayed the defeat since, even in the best-case scenario, they would not have transformed the extremely unfavorable balance of power in the Eurozone between 1 lone cash-starved anti-austerity government of the left and 18 united pro-austerity governments of the center and right.
SYRIZA suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of its EU creditors not because its leaders were outsmarted or out-chutzpah’d but because at every turn they were outgunned and outnumbered. General strikes against Eurozone-driven austerity never spread beyond Greece’s borders and international solidarity efforts were too weak and inconsistent to hamper the hands of the 18 hostile states SYRIZA faced at the negotiating table. The notion that were it not for the treachery of one Judas named Alexis Tsipras, a left-led government in underdeveloped Greece could triumph all by itself over such an unfavorable balance of forces internationally to clinch a relatively painless victory while successfully solving the difficult problems associated with exiting a currency union is a ‘left’ fairy tale that should be laid to rest. Unilateral drausterity was always the worse option compared to EU-imposed austerity.
Economic experts interviewed by Bloomberg say the reintroduction of the Drachma would mean a 50% devaluation compared to the Euro. In laymen’s terms, that would mean wages and pensions being effectively cut in half, especially when used to purchase imported goods like fuel and medicine. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the leftist anti-austerity party Podemos in Spain, worried that a Grexit would cut people’s savings by 80%.
A top adviser to Varoufakis explains why he opposed Grexit but now, after the defeat of the SYRIZA government and the imposition of a third memorandum, supports it.