Some weeks ago, while tweeting a link to an insightful analysis of the challenges facing Syriza, I quoted from the writer’s final sentence: “Can a party of activists and professors govern the most troubled economy in the developed world?”. Twitter being Twitter, a poster somehow interpreted the line as a dig at the activists and economics professors who had designed the Syriza debt programme. “Yes”, he tweeted tartly, in an obvious dig at our own dear leaders. “What they really need is a government of solicitors, barristers, secondary school teachers and ‘entrepreneurs’.”
Though a long way from the point, the question of how people should be equipped to run a country is intriguing. If a teaching qualification was a negative on political CVs, Irish public life would have been denied such talents as Joe Higgins, Ruth Coppinger, Tony Gregory and Maureen O’Sullivan as well as Enda Kenny.
Is it relevant that the new, 40-year-old Greek prime minister, an engineer by training, has never held a proper job outside political activism? Or that Syriza’s finance minister spent his entire working life in academia? Or that its chief economist was a classmate of former prime minister, George Papandreou at the country’s most prestigious school, or that party’s inner circle also includes the Oxford-educated Euclid Tsakalotos, and a shipping family heir, Gorgios Stathakis?
Such signifiers of class, educational and financial privilege might have militated against the image of a radical left party in a country riddled with corruption, cronyism and tax evasion. Instead, the highly motivated alliance of academics and activists has taken a tiny movement into government. The weight of expectation on Alexis Tsipras, a man untested by power, is frightening. Signs of compromise, manifest in recent weeks and culminating in this week’s coalition with a rabidly nationalist, right-wing party, can only raise fears that further compromise will inevitably alienate the party’s own supporters. Political and ideological opponents will bide their time, anticipating failure.
For now, Greece is a country bathed in the unfamiliar glow of hope, a people breathing out again. To many austerity survivors in other countries bent under unsustainable debt, there is a lot to like about the Greek political landscape. So could we have our own Syriza, please? Apparently, we already have. It’s called Sinn Féin. Not a lot of people noticed Alex Tsipras’s two-day visit here last year, during which he engaged in some local/European canvassing with Sinn Féin and firmed up the relationship. On Monday night, he predicted to exultant supporters, that the “new era” would be followed by Podemos’s election in Spain and Sinn Féin in Ireland.
But are they valid comparisons? How do we compare to a country still nursing the psychological wounds of a brutal German occupation, a left-right civil war and rule by military junta – a period which radicalised many – culminating in riots, fatalities and mass impoverishment ?
As a brand new party in such a landscape, Syriza brought a unique, essential quality: it was “neither indebted nor connected to the past... [It was] like a national spring clean”, in the words of writer, Alex Andreou.
How many voters will view Sinn Féin as a “national spring clean”? Has it the kind of appeal to attract a profusion of professors and intellectuals, pitching in not just their expertise but in several cases, the courage to abandon relatively cosy lives to contest seats ? Is there any new party/movement/alliance in Ireland with that kind of potential? How deep is the public thirst for it?
For many Greeks, this election was about putting down a marker. Syriza’s stunning confidence must give pause to ivory tower ideologues and raises many questions. Nearly all come back to how value and vision are measured in advanced, humane societies. Where is the social value, for example, in spending several hundred million dollars to tunnel through a mountain range to lay the fibre optic cable in a straighter line, in order to shave 0.006 seconds off the time it takes computer orders to travel from Chicago to the Nasdaq servers in New Jersey? Or in the more than two-thirds of trades in US equity markets that are high-frequency automated orders? Diana Coyle, a former adviser to the British Treasury, and who recently quoted these examples, asked: “How has the search for profit so foreshortened our vision?”.
There is a wider lesson from the Syriza win, Alex Andreou believes. That is about exposing the tension between democracy and global capitalism. “Democracy is often messy. Markets like certainty. . . If the Greek people have given a gift to the rest of the world, if there is a payoff for all the uncertainty, it is bringing those global players – usually unseen – out of hiding. Making them confront us out in the open; blackmail an entire country publicly”.
Within an hour of Tsipras’s swearing in, the busy folk in rating agency Standard and Poor’s were suggesting it would downgrade Greece. Perhaps what they meant to say to that suffering people was a heartfelt “good luck”. Because isn’t that what any decent human being would do?