Aurel Malapani-Scala, JHU:
On Sunday, January 18th 2015 the leftist party SYRIZA won a sweeping 149 parliamentary seats in the Greek national elections. Moving forward, SYRIZA has an enormous responsibility. The significance of the upcoming years of SYRIZA’s coalition government reaches far beyond Greece’s borders. A successful populist party could encourage other weak Eurozone economies to fight back against the harsh austerity measures imposed by banking conglomerates and foreign creditors. If SYRIZA is successful, they could prove that what has been deemed as ‘radical’ is, in fact, rational.
There is a commonly held misconception that the switch to the Euro from the Greek Drachma raised the standard of living for the average Greek worker. This could not be further from the truth. Bobbis Misailidis, a cargo-loader at Eleftherios Venizelos (the Athens International Airport) recounts, “ My salary experienced a substantial drop [after the adoption of the Euro]. Suddenly I could only buy half the goods that I could have bought with drachmas of equal value.” Some economists would readily respond with the argument that the switch made Greece a much more attractive place to do business, citing the substantial drops in interest rates and inflation.8 While this may be a desirable outcome for wealthy business owners and foreign creditors, it crippled the savings of average workers like Mr. Misailidis. Corrupt government officials used promises of economic stability and increased standard of living to allow the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund to effectively exploit the majority of Greeks.1 The narrative that has been used by big media corporations to shift responsibility off big banks and onto Greeks clearly overlooks the reality of the situation. As Greg Palast writes, “The belief … that Greeks have had too much fun … spent too much lazy time in the sun … [is] nonsense.”2 According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), Greek workers work more hours (2,037 annually) than workers in other European Countries (with Germans workers at the bottom of that list with 1,388 hours annually).3 The Greek people did not bring this crisis upon themselves; they did not have the ability to do so. There was no room to ‘live beyond your means’ as a working class Greek. Mr. Misialidis helps clarify this point,
“Before the crisis, I had a salary that could pay my bills. After the crisis hit, my salary was cut and I worked longer hours (due to layoffs). My taxes were increased to pay off wealthy bondholders and big banks. My 84-year-old mother’s pension was cut to the point where she couldn’t afford the heating bill and property tax for the house she inherited from my father. I had to help her financially as well. I have trouble paying any of my basic bills”
On top of the suffering that Mr. Misailidis describes, the Greeks lost many of the social programs that allowed them to lead reasonable, healthy lives. Utilities were privatized, taxes (especially property taxes) were increased dramatically, social security was cut, pensions were slashed, and universal healthcare was dismantled.5 Basic healthcare has become such a commodity that a market for illegal private nurses has cropped up in hospitals. Danny Hakim writes in an article for the New York Times, “[Patients] increasingly have to hire their own nurses just to receive basic care.”5 The costs of these private nurses, which are advertised around $60 for twelve hours of nursing, are too high for the average Greek worker who has little to no savings and a salary that can’t cover his bills. The result is that the people, especially the elderly, have little to no access to the basic medical care that they have earned through a lifetime of work. For Mr. Misailidis, his mother falling and breaking a leg would be not only an emotional toll, but also a financial catastrophe.
In light of this bleak reality, SYRIZA’s success is no shock. There is hope in the country for the first time in nearly a decade. Hope that there will be systematic change that leads to the needed sustainable improvement. While the reduction of the debt is an important goal, it is SYRIZA’s domestic platform that has driven their success. Mr. Misailidis explains why he supports SYRIZA: “[They] promised to restore basic workers rights, reinstate pensions, implement a 750 euro basic wage, and abolish the theft that is called ‘property tax’.” These measures would effectively overturn the austerity measures forced upon Greece by the euro-zone. Austerity, doublespeak for supply-side economics2, has been lauded by conservative media organizations such as The Economist, who denounce SYRIZA’s policies as “Crazy Socialism.”4 The Economist calls for a more moderate SYRIZA; one that compromises on austerity in exchange for reduction of debt. However, this pro-business approach does not resonate with a Greek population that has been working for foreign creditors for over a decade. SYRIZA does not need to become more moderate. On the contrary, it may need to consider moving farther from the center. As Greg Palast writes in his poignant article regarding the crises and election, “austerity is not the consequence of Greek profligacy, it was designed into the euro’s plan from the beginning.”2 (Emphasis in original) In fact, the father of the Euro, Robert Mundell, explained the purpose of the currency, “the Euro is a way by which congresses and parliaments can be stripped of all power over monetary and fiscal policy. Bothersome democracy is removed from the economic system.”2
If SYRIZA wants to regain true control over the Greek economy and succeed in its domestic policy, leaving the euro-zone needs to be seriously considered. There is very little to be gained by staying within the euro-zone. Many disagree with this statement. Some will cite the ‘bailouts’ that Greece received, ignoring the fact that all of that money went to Deutsche Bank and other foreign creditors, who in turn made billions of dollars while the Greek people suffered. Most of the Greek debt, which is 164% of its GDP, has been created by this vicious cycle of payment to private creditors. As Gibson writes, “The bailout that Greece needed but never got would have been in the form of jobs, increased demand, and public investment … [which would require] deficit spending and devaluation of currency.”1 These necessary steps, however, cannot be taken from within the euro-zone. If SYRIZA is to be successful, it will have to keep to its word and not give in to the pressure to compromise. They will have to be strong, purposed, and revolutionary.