Stop kidding yourself: SYRIZA is an unlikely model for the U.S. Left

by Jehu

Since SYRIZA has won in Greece many activists have wondered whether it offers a model that can be applied to other countries in the EU and even in the United States.

One essay by Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen offered their take on this possibility. The writers suggest that the SYRIZA model can be exported to other countries and that it can offer an alternative to neoliberalism:

“Across the continent, there is quite rightly a huge wave of hope at seeing that there is an alternative to simply taking our neoliberal medicine and watching as work, education, health, democracy and common decency are hacked to pieces by our increasingly-indistinguishable rulers.

David_Cameron_and_Barack_Obama_at_G8_summit,_2013The argument is fascinating, not because people are thinking about what it takes to move the Left beyond its current position on the margins of political life in most countries, but because it is not at all clear to me why the writers believe SYRIZA is an alternative to neoliberalism. (See important note below in the comments.)

Briefly stated, any serious examination of SYRIZA’s victory will show that victory was a triumph for many of the principles on which neoliberalism is founded.

In the first place, in Greece on the Left, SYRIZA is almost universally condemned outside its own ranks, precisely for conceding two major points to neoliberalism: it changed its platform to promise Greece would remain in the European Union and the euro common currency if the party won. Neoliberalism is nothing if it is not institutionally expressed in the EU, (which compromises the sovereignty of the nation state), and the euro currency, (which further strips away the capacity of the nation state to independently manage its national economy).

Moreover, in the debt negotiations now underway, we have seen SYRIZA commit not just to a balanced budget but to running a budget surplus — effectively ruling out deficit spending countercyclical policies in the middle of crises in the future.

Just seen from the stand point of a consistent anti-neoliberal position, SYRIZA appears to represent the complete capitulation of the Left to neoliberalism as the price of winning an election.

Outside Greece, the Left may be willing to ignore the significant shifts in SYRIZA’s policies that led to its election victory, and simply hope the momentum of its win carries across Europe and the United States, but there is little to suggest this momentum is in any sense anti-neoliberal as that term is usually defined.

For instance, how many on the Left in the US, UK and other countries think their government should be in the euro currency, the European Union or balance its national budget? The question raised by this is what exactly of the SYRIZA election victory can be imported into other countries as a model for Left politics.

SYRIZA faced an unusual confluence of events where the state encountered its limits, and the traditional political configuration collapsed: The crisis brought the financial sector to the brink of collapse and the state (not surprising) stepped in to rescue it. The task of rescuing the banking system exceeded any possibility the state would be able to finance this effort and the troika took the opportunity to impose a draconian austerity (internal devaluation) that could never work.

To be frank, SYRIZA benefited from the fact the Greece nation state ran into its absolute financial limits in the banking crisis. By contrast, in the United States, a similar crash took place and the state never encountered its limits. To the contrary, Washington ran trillion dollar deficits after the crash for 4-5 years and was never locked out of capital markets. Not only was the US not locked out of capital markets, the more it borrowed the lower the interest it was required to pay. The efforts to balance the federal budget were never driven by concerns in the capital market, but by political forces looking to turn the Obama deficits into a political issue.

But here is the thing: even with the collapse of the banking system, the near collapse of the state trying to bail them out, and the collapse of the two traditional parties, SYRIZA still had to promise not to leave the EU and euro. To this day, the only real difference SYRIZA’s sharpest critic, KKE, can level against SYRIZA is that it capitulated to neoliberalism.

This raises a very important question: Is the Left in the United States willing to found its own anti-austerity movement on:

  1. A balanced federal budget?
  2. Completely open border and free movement of goods, capital and laborers?
  3. A single global currency?

I ask these questions because this is essentially the platform SYRIZA won on. Even though the federal deficit is today the number one contributor to inequality — (To whom exactly do you think all the interest on the national debt goes? The homeless?) — the Left has never accepted the idea of a balanced budget. Nor does the Left accept the idea of completely opening the borders to free trade — preferring, instead, to focus its attention on defeating limited free trade agreements like the trans-pacific partnership. Finally, with a long history of advocacy of Keynesian deficit spending and with the increasing influence of MMT and UBI — all of which require a sovereign state issued fiat currency — it is unlikely to embrace the third idea.

To be sure, the Left in Greece profited from the fact that neoliberalism driven to its extreme limits brought the Left to power; but it remains to be seen whether the Left is ready to accept this lesson as valid and to push neoliberalism to its extreme limits.

Personally, I don’t think the Left has it in its DNA to embrace such a program. And we know SYRIZA didn’t, until the crisis and austerity regime imposed by the troika forced it upon the party. Even with this caveat, there are still factions in SYRIZA that don’t accept it and lobby to leave both the EU and the euro.

What is the likelihood the U.S. Left will?

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