An Israeli Socialist Defends the Greeks' Choice

What do Greek citizens know that Nehemia Shtrasler, who offered to take me on a 'dream tour' of Greece, doesn't know?

Dov Khenin
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The morning after: Passersby in Athens look at newspapers showing the results of Sunday's referendum in which Greeks overwhelmingly rejected conditions of a rescue package from creditors.Credit: Reuters
Dov Khenin

This week’s Greek revolt stunned the world. Greek citizens dared to reject the diktat of the European establishment and chose to take an unknown course, a new path that poses many risks. What do they know that Nehemia Shtrasler, who offered to take me on a “dream tour” of Greece (Haaretz, July 3) doesn’t know?

They know, for example, that Greece’s left-wing government did not cause Greece’s current crisis. The victory of the leftist Syriza party in the elections five months ago was a response to the severe crisis Greece has been in for five years. The origins of this crisis came from a totally different political place – the long-term control of a corrupt political-economic oligarchy, in which right-wing conservatives and centrist “social democrats” were partners. The linking of the weak, ailing Greek economy to the currency union with strong economies like that of Germany was also a recipe for trouble.

When the crisis erupted five years ago, the Greek oligarchy agreed to the European establishment’s radical austerity program, which harmed everything in Greece except the oligarchy itself. The five years of austerity only made things worse in Greece; if in 2010 the debt to GDP ratio was around 110 percent, in 2015, on the eve of the left’s victory it had soared to 180 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment and social distress increased to unprecedented proportions.

Then, at the end of January, Syriza was elected. It was elected not to continue the previous policies but to advance an alternative to austerity – a policy of economic recovery and a more equitable distribution of the burden. And now – what a surprise! – the Greek left apparently plans to actually do what it promised to do before it was elected. It didn’t begin to “see things from here that aren’t seen from there,” as is the custom in the cynical politics of these parts.

Such a left in power is naturally seen as a political threat to the entire European establishment, to its financial institutions and their representatives in the political system. From the start the Greek crisis was used as a political tool to subdue the Greek left for all to see. That’s why all the logical proposals made by Greece were rejected, proposals that had the support of some of the world’s leading economists, including Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

So what’s a left-wing government meant to do in such a situation? In the 20th century we saw two mistaken routes, both of which failed miserably. One, going the establishment route, was characterized by rapid capitulation in the face of obstacles and giving up on any move toward real change. The second, the Stalinist route, believed that any obstacles must be smashed by force, even without popular support; that the leadership knows best and the job of the people is to follow it obediently.

Syriza chose a different path. Its leadership indeed thought that the European dictates must be rejected, but given the great risks and legitimate concerns, it decided to take the question to the people through a referendum. Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis conducted himself transparently and publicized what he had told a closed meeting of euro bloc finance ministers on Saturday. He also wrote that, “The very idea that a government should consult with its people about the problematic proposal put before it was received at the meeting with incomprehension and even contempt. There were ministers who asked me, ‘How can you expect ordinary people to understand such complex issues?’”

Underlying the choice of a referendum is a perception of the relationship between democracy and socialism. Syriza demonstrated with its actions that it has learned the most important lesson from the socialist experiments of the 20th century, and that’s that one cannot differentiate between socialism and democracy. After all, in essence, socialism is a dramatic expansion of democracy in politics and beyond it – to economics and in society as a whole. Socialism can only be advanced with the people, never against its wishes.

Along with illustrating the necessary connection between real socialism and democracy, the Greek story also reveals the deep contradiction between democracy and contemporary capitalism. How correct for our times is the statement by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies that, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

The rule of the people or the rule of capital? This is the great question of our time. Greece this week gave its answer. The answer, in one Greek word, was demokratia.

The writer is an MK from Hadash, a faction of the Joint Arab List.