Why The Greek Elections Matter
"I smell like the history of a small catastrophe that has kept all the corpses, I smell like an old mess turned into faith, its great flame anointed with respect." -Roque Dalton
As 2015 dawns it is a safe bet that much of California, if not the entire United States, thinks little to nothing of Greece (we scarcely care about neighboring Mexico). Yet the upcoming elections in the cradle of Western thought and democracy are already creating nervous ripples in every European capital. And if an acute observer looks closely at the situation, how the Greeks vote could sooner or later affect the whole world because it is a lesson in how popular anger can be transformed into the legitimate exercise of democracy.
After the Greek parliament failed to elect a new president following three rounds of voting in December, the government was dissolved and snap elections were called for January 25. According to Greek media and newspapers such as Ekathimerini, the latest polling shows the radical left party Syriza ahead of the incumbent, right-wing New Democracy by a steady 3.3 percentage points. If Syriza achieves victory and its leader, the young and charismatic Alexis Tsipras, becomes prime minister, it will mark the first taking of power by a radical party in modern, post-Communist Europe.
The rise of Syriza was born out of the crucible of Greece's recent, catastrophic economic crisis in which an entire society was rendered to ash. Beginning in 2009, Greece was swept into the storm of the worldwide "Great Recession" when its government revealed a disastrous level of debt and terrible growth rates that were the result of the kind of dangerous, casino capitalism that ruled the world through out the 2000s. Even worse, the government had lied to the citizenry about the country's economic situation, painting hopeful dreams where there was nothing but decay.
When it became clear that the country had no private capital left to inject into its economy, the International Monetary Fund and European Union stepped in and imposed a series of brutal austerity measures on Greek society. In exchange for loans, Greece's government was strong-armed into increasing privatizations of society's basic resources, carrying out massive layoffs and other measures that shattered the middle class.
The Furies of capital had been unleashed on Greece, and the toll they extracted was deep and bloody. The Guardian reported in April 2014 that as a result of the financial crisis, suicides in Greece had increased between 2010 and 2011 by 50 percent. When the Greek parliament voted in favor of the new economic policies in 2010, riots and general strikes broke out in Athens and elsewhere, with bloody clashes setting the streets aflame. The incinerating rage of the masses revived a radical spirit inherent in Greek history. TV screens were filled with stunning images of mass crowds threatening to storm parliament, waving the red and black colors of the anarchists. Athens's notorious, proto-fascist police forces smashed faces amid a rain of molotov cocktails. As Chris Hedges commented at the time in the journal Truthdig, the battle was "the rich versus the poor, the oligarchs versus the citizens, the capitalists versus the proletariat. The Greeks, unlike most of us, get it."
When the dust settled and the new economic order was in place, Greece lay shattered and chained on a Promethean rock. But politically the masses had developed a new consciousness. Like a trauma survivor, Greek society has now become more aware and acute. Syriza, which began as a small party composed of various leftist factions, suddenly jumped from being a fringe party to the most popular in the country. Syriza has promised to fight back against the IMF's economic policies in Greece and to stop the mass layoffs and austerity policies, while at the same time remaining in the EU and negotiating with it on how to move forward.
The lesson for the world from the Greeks is two fold: First, it is still possible to brush away old, worn out political parties that have turned into nothing more than bureaucratic puppets and second, it is still possible to form popular parties fueled by street anger to compete in the arena of elections. If the modern world roared to life in the blood and fire of the French Revolution, modern Europe might emerge out of the casting of a ballot. As Tsipras wrote on Monday in an opinion piece, Syriza's value is "proving that when people want to, when they dare, and when they overcome fear, then things can change."
The old PASOK party, a dynasty in Greece since a military junta ruled with an iron fist collapsed in 1973, has been swept away in the polls, the old conservative parties such as the current ruling New Democracy, is also falling. The dark side is that an angry, devastated population is turning to radical alternatives on all fronts. Along with Syriza, there has also been a rise in extreme fascist parties such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement. Golden Dawn has been elected into parliament even as its politicians preach a ferocious, violent, rabidly racist creed and have gone so far as to beat up rivals and leftists in the streets and on TV.
If Greece elects Syriza, it will shake the foundations of modern Europe where countries like Spain and Italy are also suffering from harsh austerity and economic shake ups. The radical party Podemos in Spain is anxiously awaiting to see what way Athens goes, for it could set the road for its neighbors. The U.S. and Germany, which have backed Greece's right-wing governments and its economic gambling, are also waiting with contracting nerves. It is as if a portent by Henry Kissinger from 1973 is coming to life. Kissinger stated during a meeting with Washington businessmen at the time that "The Greek people are anarchic and difficult to tame. For this reason we must strike deep into their cultural roots. thereby removing them as an obstacle to our strategically vital plans in the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East."
Indeed, the example of Greece is important in an era where movements sprout and create waves, but then recede and leave the old systems in place. For example, Greece is a conduit between Europe and the east. Nations like Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and Yemen which experienced the tremors of the Arab Spring in 2011, saw great uprisings but no vital social changes. Egypt is now again gripped by a military dictatorship, Libya is in ruins and Syria has cannibalized itself in civil war. The masses had no political alternatives or organized movements to offer new visions of the future. Orphaned, the protesters of these countries have seen their dreams dissipate. A new, radical, democratic Greece could serve as a model for the region as Venezuela and Bolivia have done in South America.
Culturally in the United States we are proud of our sense of individualism. We protest, we form marches, we ignite the talk shows with grievances, but we do little to change from the rotation of two parties and a Congress increasingly unpopular with the citizens they represent. If the Greeks vote for Syriza, they will be saying to the world's unruly that yes, there are problems, yes, one has the right to vent anger at the current situation, but eventually clear, political alternatives have to be formed or else nothing will ever progress.
The Greek way might not be the answer for everyone, but it is a reminder that even amid social collapse, societies will attempt to reclaim their history. From the land of Sophocles, the world might be taught what popular power means.