Clash with Syriza: what does reform really mean?

Employment & Income25 Mar 2015Frans Bieckmann

Over the past months, I have been following the dogfight between the Syriza government in Greece and the European establishment with fascination. Europe has united in taking a firm stand against Syriza’s efforts to loosen the stranglehold on its country. No holds are barred in the political propaganda war. Reparation for the mass murders of Greek villagers by the Nazis. Threats to open up the Greek borders to refugees. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker leading Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras by the hand as if he we were a small child who knows nothing of how the grown-ups do things out in the big, wide world. Syriza politicians dismissed as a bunch of befuddled nutcases out on the margins, populists in the mould of Le Pen, Wilders and UKIP, just because they are critical of how Europe works. While, in the centre, are the wise men who continue to calmly broadcast the hard but inescapable message that we simply can’t spend more than is coming in, and that ‘structural reforms’ are necessary to guarantee our continued prosperity in the future. And the journalists lap it up, this technocratic view of reality in the eurozone.

But it is not these recurring patterns in news reports and comments that fascinate me. My interest is particularly aroused by the fact that Syriza’s rise to power (and, for example, the increasing popularity of Podemos in Spain) suggests that, for the first time in many decades, a serious alternative appears to be emerging to the way in which Europe is structured. Whether that really is the case remains to be seen, and the probability that a small country like Greece can play a decisive role is very slight. But it is certainly worth looking at the process from this perspective.

No one ever asks Europe’s leaders, for example, what they mean by structural reforms. It would be interesting to have a serious debate about that. Does it mean, as has been argued for many years, further flexibilizing the economy to create more employment and therefore increase prosperity? (see for example my editorial in The Broker’s Employment dossier). Or does it require a completely different approach, as Syriza and Podemos suggest? Their analyses and solutions may not yet be fully worked out, but they merit serious attention. To me, it is painfully obvious that the European project finds itself at a critical stage. The counter-reactions that this can provoke – the movements of people like Le Pen and Wilders and the way in which some politicians of the ‘centre’ go along with them (see for example the proposal of the Dutch ‘liberal’ VVD, a member of the governing coalition, to close off European borders completely to all refugees and asylum-seekers – are alarming and dangerous. It is important to distinguish these reactions from what Syriza is proposing. Or, as Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis wrote in an interesting essay on the Guardian website titled ‘How I became an Erratic Marxist‘ last month, ‘Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilization as we know it.’

That is why he wants to ‘embark upon a campaign for stabilizing European capitalism’ to alleviate the impact of, or even prevent, the following economic crisis, which he feels is definitely coming. ‘Europe’s crisis,’ says Varoufakis, ‘is far less likely to give birth to a better alternative to capitalism than it is to unleash dangerously regressive forces that have the capacity to cause a humanitarian bloodbath, while extinguishing the hope for any progressive moves for generations to come.’