Do you dream in Greek?
Syriza may be finding the realities of government to be tough going, but this hasn’t stopped many hoping to replicate the Greeks’ electoral success
There’s a soundbite in Irish politics which came to mind a bit during the last few weeks when watching the interaction between the new Greek government and their European peers. “You’re playing senior hurling now, lads” is the line in question, attributed to the late Fianna Fail minister Seamus Brennan and used by him during negotiations with the Green Party to form a government after the 2007 general election. It’s slightly more earthy than the usual “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” rhetoric but it gets the same message across: the time for posturing and posing ends when you sit down to negotiate with those who have a stronger hand and more experience than you.
In the case of Syriza seeking a debt deal with their creditors, it’s probably more like a ruthless, dirty junior hurling match on a mucky pitch in November. As you would expect, the spin from both sides has been fierce because both sides have to demonstrate steely resolve. Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis have to show those who’ve voted for them that they didn’t blink first, while the Eurozone finance ministers need to demonstrate to their various constituencies that they’ve given no quarter to these bucks from Athens who have inherited some massive debts and now want to put them to one side.
Both sides can claim victory from what the extension means, but the thought of the Greeks giving the European Union and others the finger, the equivalent of that Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way boast, can be quickly dismissed. The Greeks still need to come up with the cash to repay their debts and a rake of austerity measures of some stripe or other will still be in effect at home to esnure this happens. The young bucks have left the pitch battered and bruised, with Varoufakis speaking about “inhuman” terms and deadlines after the negotiations, like a poor streak of a corner-forward hacked to bits for an hour by a crusty old corner-back. For now, at least, the TINAs have won.
But there are alternatives. There are always alternatives. The thousands of people who voted for Syriza and their anti-austerity measures a few weeks ago certainly believed there was an alternative. The millions of people who looked at Tsipras coolly taking power and who began to dream in Greek as a result saw an alternative to the politics which held sway in their own country. Be it Podemos in Spain or the many parties and entities in Ireland from Sinn Fein to the Anti Austerity Alliance who will claim to be Syriza’s soul brothers and sisters here, many movements could take heart from the Greek narrative. Those who were sick and tired of the cronyism, cynicism and corruption which dominates so much of traditional politics and politicing also started to believe an alternative was possible.
The problem is that these issues are not just national, but European and global, and can’t switched off like a leaky tap. The countries where austerity measures dictated the social and economic policies were countries where outside creditors had loaned bailout funds and they wanted their money back – fast. Economist Thomas Piketty wouldn’t be the only one bemoaning the fact that the focus on repayments has come at a heavy price for growth and economic recovery in those countries.
However, this is the accepted way of the walk and any alternatives are simply not palatable or possible to those who set the ground rules. You can think and draft and sketch and pontificate that there are other ways to carry out the business of dealing with debts and bailouts. You can toughen up and play hard or you can be diplomatic and play the game in the hope of winning a better deal for your folks. But the truth of the matter is that those creditors, led by the bogeyman of the troika, want their loans paid back and will point to the terms and conditions signed by the old governments, the ones ousted by the voters, as proof of this. The pound of flesh needs to be repaid.
Changing all of this is possible, no matter how outlandish it may seem, but these are macro and not micro iterations. In the western world, free markets, free trade and capitalism are the abiding ideologies and the numbers and power blocs upholding this state of affairs far outweigh those agitating for something else. Citizens may believe that something else, something kinder and more people-friendly, would be fantastic, but the efforts required to bring this change into being are simply too vast, onerous and impossible for many to consider or contemplate. The biggest changes are the hardest ones to imagine coming to pass.
Then, there’s the fact that many have largely stayed schtum and accepted what has been going on. While people in Greece and Iceland, were out on the streets agitating, protesting, banging pots and pans and jailing banksters, the majority in Ireland and elsewhere just stayed quiet and sucked up the austerity measures imposed to make sure debts were repaid. Sure, we hit back at the ballot box as we always do, but those we elected came up against the same problems that Tsipras and Varoufakis now face and accepted the conditions from their creditors. The die for that behaviour had been cast a long time ago.
Of course, you can always spin that these measures have worked. Between now and the next general election, the Fine Gael and Labour government will be pushing all the metrics well-paid advisors can produce to show that the cuts and taxes of the last few years have steadied the ship and brought about an improvement in our economic situation. No matter that most Irish people will look at their own balance sheets and not see much change at present until the inevitable giveaway budget Michael Noonan will usher in before the year is out to help the re-election effort. The austerity measures, the yarn will go, have worked. And yes, they probably have – the country still exists, there is still cash in the hole-in-the-wall machines, there is obvious recovery in some areas (most notably certain parts of the capital) – but it has come at a huge human, social and national cost.
No wonder then that there are many people out there who will continue to dream in Greek. People power can be a very seductive thing and the footage of Greek voters celebrating at the end of last month when they elected Syriza is something many voters here will want to replicate. But as the Greeks have learned over the last 10 bruising days in Brussels, you always have to wake up after a dream and face reality. And the reality is that change of the kind people really want requires an awful lot more than just one election victory.