Syriza’s victory: this is what the politics of hope looks like
The Guardian, By Owen Jones
The Greek election result is a historic watershed – and it’s middle-aged working-class women who have organised it.
To go from a country like Britain where politics is a source of profound cynicism to one where it is a cause for hope: well, it is chastening. Outside the Greek finance ministry are cleaners who used to work there, until 16 months ago – like so many Greeks – they lost their jobs. “We were just numbers, not human beings,” one tells me. Ever since, they’ve camped outside, battled riot police, and become iconic figureheads of the struggle against austerity. Plastered around their camp are defiant posters: a clenched fist in a kitchen glove, a cleaner sweeping away Greece’s discredited, despised political elite. “We hope to take back our lives, our jobs,” I’m told. “After so many years, to be happy again.”
But here’s the thing. Middle-aged working-class women have hardly had much of a political voice in Greece, or most other western societies for that matter. Yet rather than become victims, they have organised and demanded to be heard. There is a real sense that maybe – just maybe – the likes of these sacked middle-aged cleaners could be the new masters now.
Greece is a society that has been progressively dismantled by EU-dictated austerity. Outside one polling station, I speak to Georgia, who works at a hospital clinic manned by volunteers which caters for the impoverished. For unemployed Greeks denied access to the public healthcare system, such clinics are lifelines. Georgia has one clear ambition – that after a year or two of a Syriza-led government, her clinic will no longer be needed and will close. Syriza supporters speak often more as though they are in a disaster zone than competing in an election. Dealing with the “humanitarian crisis” is described as the new government’s number one priority.
This was not just an election victory: this was a historic watershed. From the late 1980s onwards, the Soviet totalitarian satellite states began to collapse. The end of the cold war was cleverly spun into the final, absolute victory of not just capitalism, but its most undiluted, rapacious form: “The End of History” – the sense that even the most democratic left project was somehow buried in the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Deprived of any organised ideological counterweight, capitalism was liberated to chip away at all the constraints that had been placed upon it: like nationalisation, progressive taxation, workers’ rights, social security and regulation. The culmination of this hubris was the financial collapse, as triumphant free-market capitalism went into meltdown. But the left did not exist as a viable mass political force in the west: its battered remnants could get together a few placards complaining about the bankers, but it had no coherent alternative to offer.
Syriza’s victory is the biggest challenge to the era of “There Is No Alternative” yet. Syriza are presented as “far left”, while those they replace are presumably “moderates”. It is a fascinating insight into what the western media regard as moderation: plunging over half of young people into unemployment, almost doubling child poverty, stripping away basic social protections. The politics of despair peddled by elites mean you are supposed to regard such injustices as inevitable, irresistible, impossible to overcome. But the re-emergence of the left as a political force – at least offering the possibility of a different sort of society – represents a substantial punch in the face to an economic order that has prevailed for a generation.
No wonder so many leftists – from Britain, Spain, France, Italy, and all over Europe – travelled to Athens for this moment. For many of them, neoliberalist triumphalism is all they have ever known. The stripping away of hard-won social rights and the ever-growing dominance of the market are things they have almost taken for granted. Some looked rather dazed as the victorious Alexis Tsipras took to the stage, because they have grown accustomed to losing.
Syriza is not about to build a new socialist society. It has assembled a coalition with a rightwing party; it faces the determined opposition of EU leaders and powerful interests within Greece itself. It will be battered by the markets, and will compromise in a way that will undoubtedly alienate many of its own supporters, both in Greece and abroad.
Nonetheless, a left that was no longer supposed to exist has returned. Neoliberalism is no longer without formidable enemies. In Spain, Podemos – which has closely aligned itself to Syriza – is surging in the polls, and similar forces may gain traction in other European countries too. Neoliberal hegemony is – gradually and unevenly – being chipped away. It is still hard to see a world free of it. But it is no longer impossible.