Ntina Tzouvala: SYRIZA Wins. Reflections While the Tide is Turning

 Ioannis Lassithiotakis, "Good morning" Ioannis Lassithiotakis, "Good morning"
For any new radical politics the future lasts a long time
Ntina Tzouvala

There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.
 Leonard Cohen

It is probably uncontroversial to argue that the Greek elections of the 25th January will be remembered as one of the most important in the history of Greece, of the Eurozone and of the post-​1989 Left on an international scale. Indeed, SYRIZA’s 36.3% enabled the party of the radical Left to form a coalition government with the small party of the Independent Greeks (more about this later), which is arguably the first leftist government of the Eurozone and the first government elected post-​2008 in Europe committed to putting an end to austerity. Any discussion about SYRIZA can be of exhaustive length and duration, so in this post I will attempt to focus on three things: First, I will provide a brief overview of the outcome of the election trying to reflect on what it means for Greek society at this given moment. Secondly, I will reflect on why SYRIZA’s victory can have wider ramifications both for Europe and for the Left on an international scale. Thirdly, and given that this is a critical, ergo at least moderately pessimistic, form some thoughts on the limitations of the project will be provided.

SYRIZA succeeded in a clear victory over the previous governing party of New Democracy (‘ND’ hereafter), which managed to get a bit less than 28%. To comprehend this, we need to take into account that even though ND is nominally a centre-​right party, it has moved decisively to the far-​right during the last five years. Applying an aggressively neoliberal agenda that managed to alienate them even from some of their traditional supporters, such as the urban middle class or relatively well-​off farmers, ND advanced an openly xenophobic and racist rhetoric regarding immigration and pushed for a solidly conservative agenda, while its connections with the openly neo-​Nazi Golden Dawn appear undeniable.

The other parties
This takes us to our second point, which is that Golden Dawn is now the third biggest political party in Greece (6.28%), having elected 17 MPs. In my view, it is essential to understand that this did not happen despite the fact that its leaders are now in prison accused of grave crimes, often with clear racist motives, but exactly because of this. A significant fraction of Greek society remains devoted to neo-​Nazi ideas and racist violence, so for them being accused of such crimes is a badge of honour. What is of acute significance is that Golden Dawn enjoys widespread support amongst the police (and more specifically the riot police) and to a lesser extend in the army, and even among the judiciary. This could be crucial to the extent that it indicates a structural ‘hardening’ of the state, which even the government (any government) might not be in position to control fully. SYRIZA needs to deal with this situation as rapidly as possible, since losing control of parts of the state is not a wild scenario. To move on, the (hard-​core neoliberal) To Potami, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party (PASOK) and the right-​wing anti-​austerity Independent Greeks were all between 4,7% and 6% (the threshold to get parliamentary representation is 3%).

Given that media attention on Greece has been overwhelming, I will not focus my analysis on SYRIZA being a challenge to mainstream neoliberal politics of the Eurozone. This argument has
been made repeatedly and it is undeniably a crucial one. Rather, I will try to reflect on how the project of a leftist government in Greece might influence the international Left. This debate needs to be informed by the proposition that the Left has developed a love-​hate relationship with the state and state power over the last century but more specifically after 1989. It is no coincidence that the question of state power and transition lies at the core of the schism between Marxist and anarchist versions of the communist project. Neither is it incidental that government participation became such a thorny issue for the Italian and the French Left in the 1970s.

The radical Left, the state and the social movements

Nowadays, the radical Left has grown to be very sceptical of the state: the Soviet experience and the failure of the Keynesian paradigm both pointed to the limits and the traps that state-​centric politics entail. Perhaps even more significantly, the official failure of the socialist experiments in Eastern Europe initiated a period where state power was unthinkable for the Left, to the extent that any grand project was. SYRIZA appears to be aware of this tension, but also determined to assume responsibility for its political desires. On the one hand, SYRIZA has been an organic part of various social movements. Just a few examples: SYRIZA supported and participated in the anti-​gold mining movement in northern Greece (
here) and it was the only ‘mainstream’ party that did not outright condemn the 2008 youth riots, a choice that bore significant political costs at the time (here). Similarly, its policies aspire to support collaborative production projects that go beyond the private-​public sector divide and embody an alternative way of organising social co-​existence (here). On the other hand, for SYRIZA it is quite clear that, to the extent that neoliberalism (and capitalism more broadly) is a project that aspires to reshape the entirety of our social existence, [2] the Left cannot give up on a mechanism such as the state, with its extensive repressive, biopolitical, ideological or redistributional mechanisms. It is genuinely unclear whether SYRIZA will be more successful than its political ancestors in resolving the immense underlying tensions, but the mere fact that it undertakes the project is a turning point for the Left at least on a European scale.

This is not to imply that there are no significant limitations to SYRIZA’s experiment. To begin with, SYRIZA’s victory is attributable to a peculiar social alliance ranging from the radicalised unemployed youth that seeks radical change to the (moderate to conservative) middle-​classes aspiring to regain their consumption-​driven prosperity.
[3] Evidently, such alliances are essential to secure a viable government, but they also point to the potential limitations of radical policies to be followed. Moreover, SYRIZA was two seats short of an absolute parliamentary majority and therefore a coalition government with the right-​wing anti-​austerity party of Independent Greeks was formed. When this post was written, the details of the agreement were still unknown. It is safe to assume that the anti-​austerity commitments of the Independent Greeks at a minimum level are not directly hostile to the core aspects of SYRIZA’s economic program. Admittedly, the situation will be far more complicated when it comes to social issues, such as LGBT rights (Greece does not even allow for civil partnership between same-​sex couples, despite the ECtHR having ruled that this constitutes a violation of Articles 8 and 14 of the Convention) or granting citizenship to immigrants’ children. SYRIZA’s emphasis on austerity and democracy as opposed to market fundamentalism was warranted by the political momentum and won it the election, but implementing its human rights and civil liberties agenda is also crucial in a country where social conservativism is central to the articulation of neoliberal (and capitalist) hegemony.

In any case, and to recall one of the intellectual currents that lies at the heart of SYRIZA’s ideological origins, for new radical politics the future lasts a long time.

Ntina Tzouvala is a PhD candidate and part-​time staff at Durham Law School.

The article was first published on Critical Legal Thinking (Law & the Political)


1. See: Helena Smith, "Greek prime minister facing resignation calls after aide's Golden Dawn gaffe", The Guardian, 3.4.2014. It probably suffices to be noted that the party’s spokeswoman publicly condemned Tsipra’s decision to take a secular and not a Greek Orthodox oath, which makes him the first Greek PM to do so.
2. See: P. Dardot, C. Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society (Verso,2013)
3.  That said, there appears to be some (non-​linear) association between social class and vote distribution. A stark example here is the suburb of Ekali (Athens’s equivalent to South Kensington) where SYRIZA got less than 10% of the vote share, whereas ND more than 60. Similarly, in the B΄ Peiraios, which is a solidly working-​class area with high unemployment rates, SYRIZA secured 42% and ND less than 19%.