In the face of relentless blackmail from international institutions and the Greek establishment, Greece’s NO vote to austerity has sent shock-waves through Europe and the wider world. Vanessa Patta, a member of DEA, a revolutionary socialist group in SYRIZA, writes on fear, defiance, and what comes next.
In times of intense struggle, when there is a mass movement, time speeds up. In terms of class-consciousness, weeks can count as decades. For Greece, last week was one such case.
Once the Greek referendum was announced, both the Greek and the European bourgeoisie fought tooth and nail in order to extract a YES vote from the Greek people.
The European institutions initially blackmailed Greece in material terms by cutting off the ELA lifeline (emergency funding) to the Greek economy. They followed up with a barrage of statements, ranging from disinformation on the content of the proposal to fear mongering and blatant interventions in the internal affairs of the Greek state – Martin Schultz and Wolfgang Schäuble being the worst offenders.
At home, the oligarch-owned media sought to create a bank run. Anticipating this, the SYRIZA government had to impose a daily cash drawing limit and ban capital flight abroad. The bias of private media in favour of YES was shameless: they often resorted to egregious lies and fabrications, the TV channels devoted on average ten times more screen time to the YES side than the NO side, and on some occasions explicitly broke the laws on election coverage. Throughout the past week there was a constant ambience of terror: a NO vote would reportedly completely isolate Greece from the rest of Europe; Greece would be expelled from the Eurozone and the EU; the Greek currency would immediately revert to the drachma; Greece would no longer be able to import or export goods and money; all savings over 8,000 Euros would be cut; the Greek people would go short of basic goods such as food, fuel and medicine.
Media propaganda for YES was so glaring that even the most naive viewers saw it for what it was. However, this does not mean that they did not believe it, even as they denounced it. Many people ran to the ATMs to withdraw as much money as was permitted, as they believed that Greece would have to leave the Eurozone and they would lose their lives’ savings in the event of a NO vote. Paradoxically, at the same time they angrily called out journalists as pawns and liars. As a characteristic example, journalists looking to present ‘ordinary people’ who fitted their narrative would go to those queuing for ATM withdrawals, but they would almost invariably stumble upon defenders of Tsipras. Occasionally, the journalists were even verbally attacked on air by the very same people seeking to withdraw their savings based on those journalists’ propaganda.
While the bulk of the YES propaganda centered on a bleak vision of the day after a NO vote, some of it carried positive messages for YES. Completely misrepresenting the stakes of the referendum and evading the actual question on the proposed austerity measures, the YES vote was advertised as ‘pro-European’ and appealed to a twisted sense of internationalism, often referring to common grounds of culture and cooperation among Europeans (the ‘big European family’). In this light, the NO vote was presented as isolating and even nationalistic. The claim attempted to gain credence by pointing out the governmental ‘unholy alliance’ between SYRIZA and the nationalist Independent Greeks, as well as Golden Dawn’s opportunistic support of the NO vote. (In fact, Golden Dawn pretty much ignored the referendum, and their newspapers ran articles that essentially supported the YES vote. Their members were nowhere to be seen near either the NO or the YES rallies.)
Adding to the relentless propaganda by the media, there was more immediate pressure from the bourgeoisie. There have been many reports of businesses falsely claiming that they were unable to pay their employees because of capital controls, or that they would be unable to keep them in employment in the event of a NO vote, or even threatening them with dismissal if they didn’t go to the YES rallies.
Among proponents of YES, the parties which have previously governed (ND, PASOK and DIMAR) mostly kept a low profile, as they have been so discredited in the eyes of the public that any statement of theirs was likely to backfire; by comparison, the as yet ‘untainted’ Potami was featured more prominently in the media. Of course, as often happens in such situations, they found some eager allies among public figures in art, literature and academia. What is alarming, however, is that they also found allies within SYRIZA itself. In the crucial days leading up to the referendum, prominent voices within SYRIZA either predicted an immediate deal that would render the referendum irrelevant or outright called for its cancellation (Papadimoulis, for instance, denounced the referendum as irresponsible because the question was allegedly unclear; he was promptly joined by Tsoukalas, Melas, Vergopoulos, Rombolis and others). This demonstrates the effects of incorporating elements of social democracy in SYRIZA, and the debilitating role that these people play within the party in times of great polarisation; it crystallises the argument for their isolation and expulsion.
On a related note, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) once again failed to rise up to the occasion. In this decisive turning point, they called on voters to spoil the ballot (later they also called for abstention). Their reasoning was that a NO vote would just lead to a similar type of deal and that therefore there was only an illusion of choice. This failed to convince even its own voters: by conservative estimates, 67% of KKE voters voted NO. Even many KKE members refused to follow the party line. Essentially, KKE underestimated the dynamic of NO: a common type of mistake for a party that is losing its grip on the working class. KKE wrongly assessed the role of the movement, the party left wing and the base of SYRIZA in Tsipras’s decision to reject the new memorandum, and how a resounding NO strengthens those factors.
Despite the concerted attack of the media, SYRIZA along with ANTARSYA and other forces on the Left did valuable work in neighbourhoods, workplaces and in social media. Despite the hostility of the neoliberal leaderships of the nationwide trade-unions, which shamefully sided with YES, dozens of workers’ unions at the bottom and solidarity organisations voted motions in favour of NO. Both sides organised large rallies, which were initially similar in size. However, the NO rallies grew larger and larger as the referendum date drew close, culminating in the enormous rally of Friday, which numbered hundreds of thousands. It was many times the size of the YES rally which had been called at the same time.
The bourgeoisie threw one more curveball at the government: they applied to the Council of State claiming that the referendum was unconstitutional, based on an article of the Constitution stating that referenda cannot be held on fiscal policy. The Council of State rejected the appeal. This development should not be read as a legal victory or as a favourable predisposition of the justice system, but rather as a political victory owing to the mass mobilisations that took place.
It was in this atmosphere that Sunday’s referendum took place. In this context of relentless fear mongering, the final result of NO by over 61% is nothing short of remarkable. This victory is a testament to the rapid development of class-consciousness among the Greek people, who dared to defy the austerity dogma even as they clearly believed the bourgeoisie’s threats. And make no mistake: this was a working-class vote. Comparing the class makeup of areas where NO got the largest versus smallest percentages reveals a strong correlation. In Athens, for instance, YES prevailed in upper-class areas such as Philothei, Psychiko, Ekali and Voula, whereas in predominantly working-class districts such as Perama, Keratsini, Nikaia and Korydallos NO exceeded 70%. Nor does the vote correlate with pre-existing political affiliations: even traditionally conservative districts overwhelmingly voted NO as long as their population was working-class. The only exceptions to this demographic are the pensioners, most of whom voted YES. This is to be expected, as pensioners are in less contact with means of politicisation such workplaces, local mobilisations and social media, which makes them more vulnerable to media propaganda.
So the Greek people voted NO, half-expecting harsh retaliation. Instead, they watched the media propaganda crumble the moment the polls closed. Suddenly, everyone stopped predicting disaster. The tone changed: no more mention of the purported fiscal isolation, vanishing of people’s savings, lack of basic goods, or any of the other bogeymen they had been anticipating minutes before. The sudden collapse of the establishment’s lies was as shameless as the lies themselves. Until the day of the referendum, it was the end of the world. Once the polls closed, it was just Sunday. This was for many an eye-opening realisation. If the referendum were to take place again, the percentage of NO would be even higher.
The day ended with celebratory demonstrations through the streets of all major Greek cities. It was a class victory. The blow on pro-austerity parties was so hard that Samaras, leader of ND, immediately resigned – this follows the recent resignation of Venizelos, leader of PASOK.
This is the story of the referendum as the Greek people experienced it. But it would be misleading to stop here. Because when we zoom out of Greece and look at the wider political climate, we see a different story unfold.
Since the referendum was announced, it has sent shockwaves through the rest of the world. We have seen massive solidarity demonstrations throughout Europe and beyond, sometimes tens of thousands strong, as in Paris, calling on the Greek people to vote NO to the creditors’ brutal austerity proposal, and then celebrating along with the Greek people when NO won. These demonstrations were not borne out of a bond with the Greek nation, or some sort of abstract admiration of the Greek people and culture; on the contrary, they were keenly class-conscious: the Greek NO was clearly connected with a NO to austerity in the homeland, and was often organised and expressed through workers’ unions such as CGT in France. It was an instance of working-class solidarity, exposing the faux camaraderie of the ‘big European family’ narrative.
This is exactly the power that the upper classes were terrified of, and what the Greek referendum seems to have unleashed. This battle has been one of the clearest cases of class warfare: it is its sociopolitical nature rather than its economic impact that makes it so important. The true reason Greece’s creditors are so ruthless is ‘trouble at home’. If Greece is allowed to escape austerity, they will not be able to defend these policies to their own working classes. Greece at the moment is truly the weakest link that may yet break the chain of European capitalism.
That said, in light of the latest developments, the analysis must end on a sober note. Tsipras has a choice of how to take advantage of the NO vote, and the first signs after the referendum are foreboding. Tsipras’s very first move was to call a council of all party leaders (including pro-austerity parties) and agree on a ‘national strategy’, issuing a joint statement making vague references to ‘development’. It was a step towards ‘national unity’, weakening the blow of the decisive class victory that took place on Sunday. Next he forced the resignation of finance minister Varoufakis and replaced him with Tsakalotos. Despite the fact that Varoufakis has been heavily criticised for his social democratic delusions, his replacement must be read as an attempt to appease the creditors. His successor Tsakalotos is no more anticapitalist and shares a favourable attitude towards the Eurozone.
At the moment of writing, there is talk of a new deal within the day, based on an ‘improved version’ of Junker’s proposal. Tsipras apparently wants to capitalise on the NO vote in order to ensure his hegemony internally over the opposition, but is otherwise poised to sign a new memorandum. But he grossly underestimates the power of the movement. The message of NO was clear: no more austerity. If Tsipras tries to interpret the will of the people in any other way, he may find out the hard way that he cannot control and exploit the anti-austerity movement for his own causes. For one thing, there is absolutely no guarantee that an austerity scheme will be passed in Parliament, even by SYRIZA MPs. More crucially, once the working class comes out on the streets en masse, they cannot generally be contained. Even if Tsipras manages to pass a pro-austerity bill, any such capitulation of the government risks facing strong grassroots resistance.
There is only one set of winning moves for the SYRIZA government: stop payments to the IMF, nationalise the banks, and take legal measures against media propaganda – as for the latter, the first timid steps were taken in this direction by prosecuting a few key journalists. Anything less than that, and we should expect a vicious backlash from the bourgeois establishment. On top of these measures, SYRIZA must also stop treating the Euro as a taboo subject, Greece must be prepared for a possible return to national currency, which may become necessary in order to be able to draw its own fiscal policy.
An anti-austerity battle was won in Greece. But the war, in Greece and in Europe, is still raging.