Saturday, 31 January 2015

Anti-Austerity Party Sweeps Greek Elections: What US Progressives Can Learn

Supporters of Syriza celebrate (Pic: A Ceolin/Flickr)
by Kate Arnoff, Yes! magazine: 

This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

There are plenty of lessons to be taken from Syriza’s victory and the rise to power of Spain's Podemos party, but striving to speak to people rather than politics might be chief among them.

On January 25, Syriza - a previously marginal, left-leaning coalition party in Greece - made history by winning the country’s general election. Winning 149 of 300 parliamentary seats, the party fell just two votes shy of an outright majority.

Syriza’s leader, 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, will become prime minister at the head of a coalition anti-austerity government, beating out the conservative New Democracy party and its now former prime minister, Antonis Samaras. “Our enemies want us small, speaking a language no one understands.”

Many have attributed the party’s meteoric rise to power as a product of the brutal austerity conditions imposed on Greece by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in their 2010 bailout of the country.

Such measures have destroyed a quarter of the country’s GDP, and driven youth unemployment to an astounding 50%. At this point, the country’s non-working population outnumbers the employed as national debt continues to skyrocket.

Syriza has offered Greece a hopeful alternative, focused on getting people back to work, “transforming the political system,” and meeting basic needs.

The party plans to immediately implement programs to guarantee housing and electricity as well as provide free medical and pharmaceutical care for the unemployed, among other measures aimed at reconstituting the country’s social safety net - left to crumble under austerity.

In Brussels, they also plan to push for a renegotiation of the country’s debt, an infusion of capital for a “European New Deal,” and quantitative easing. In confronting the Eurozone and the IMF, the party has grown into rather than shrunk from its radical-left, anti-capitalist roots.

Speaking with the Guardian, Tsipras noted, “This crisis is not coincidental. It’s a structural crisis of capitalism and of its neoliberal model.” Syriza’s success, however, is about more than just material conditions.

Emerging from various splits in Greece’s communist left, as well as the alter-globalization and anti-racist movements, the party jolted from relative obscurity by mobilizing a younger, more populist base alongside trade unionists and older middle-class Greeks shaken by the country’s financial crisis.

The party has made a public alliance with the Spanish populist party Podemos, or “We Can,” a largely decentralized formation out of that country’s Indignados movement that, of late, has surged in popular opinion polls and predicts a strong turnout in the Spanish general election later this year.

Together, these two sister movements from the Mediterranean are looking to alter the course of European political, economic and social life, maintaining both left-patriotism for their respective nations and a defiant internationalism. Syriza’s tagline is “Greece goes forward - Europe is changing.”

From their outset, each party has been staunchly anti-austerity, providing a political vehicle for both leftists and, perhaps more importantly, ordinary Greeks who felt abandoned by the political leaders who dumped them headfirst into a painful crisis.

In an interview with Jacobin, Syriza central committee member Stathis Kouvelakis describes his party’s success in terms of its transition from “a party of members [rather than] a party of activists or active members, a parti d’adhérents rather than aparti de militants.”

In multiple publications and TV appearances, both Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’ former TV personality spokesman, have emphasized the need to reach beyond traditional left bases among educated workers, student radicals and intellectuals, being realistic about the extent to which the left has been defeated in the court of public opinion - in other words, “mainstreaming” the movement.

There are plenty of lessons to be taken from Syriza’s victory and Podemos’ rise to power, but striving to speak to people rather than politics might be chief among them.

“Our enemies,” Iglesias advises, “want us small, speaking a language no one understands, in a minority, hiding behind our traditional symbols.” These enemies, he continues, are “delighted with that, because they know that as long as we are like that, we are not dangerous.”

This may be a lesson, then, that now - more than ever - is the time to get dangerous.

Kate Aronoff wrote this article for Waging Nonviolence. Kate is an organizer and freelance writer based in Philadelphia, whose writing has been published in Waging Nonviolence, Dissent Magazine, AlterNet, and The New York Times. Find her on Twitter at @katearonoff.

Friday, 30 January 2015

A 21st Century Left Rises: Syriza’s Victory and Its Relevance for the U.S. and the World

by Alan Minsky, TruthDig:

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras (AP/Petros Giannakouris)
The Greek election Sunday night produced a historic moment, one that millions of people have long awaited: Syriza’s triumph was the first time that a radical-left party has won an election in Europe since the Cold War began (and arguably, ever). 

The euphoric celebrations in Athens came as no surprise - very little lifts people’s hearts like the dream of a truly egalitarian society.
Of course, after five years of economic austerity, life in Greece these days is more nightmare than dream.
Now that the Greek people have defied the global ruling class by electing Syriza, the question shifts to whether the coordinated forces of global neoliberal capitalism will allow an alternative economic model to take root, one that prioritizes the welfare of the common people over that of the 1 percent. 

What happens next in the country where democracy was born is of the utmost importance to people around the world, including in the oligarchic United States.
Before addressing the extremely difficult circumstances facing the next Greek government, let’s stay focused on why this moment is so huge - and not just because it will roil international markets and destabilize the euro. Those things are very important, but let’s think even bigger.

Syriza’s triumph throws into clear relief the most important political issue of our time. Is it possible for a left political formation to challenge, win victories against and ultimately overthrow the dominant economic and political paradigm of the past four decades? To be clear, I’m referring to the Reagan/Thatcher/Clinton/Blair neoliberal order, aka contemporary globalized capitalism. 

Furthermore, if victories are possible, what would such a left look like? Could its vision for a better tomorrow capture the imagination of the world’s people? How would addressing climate change be central to its program? And what impact might this political situation have on domestic politics in the U.S.?
All of us, everyone in the world today, have been living through a three-decade-long counter-reaction to a historical arc with its roots in the European revolutions that began in the late 17th century. 

Viewed from this broad perspective, the major societies of Europe and what we know as the “West” have generally evolved from autocratic feudal regimes in which very few people held economic and political power toward greater democratization (keeping in mind, of course, their brutal, and anything but egalitarian colonial projects). 

In other words, in Europe, the USA, and Japan, wealth became more equitably distributed over time and more people participated in deciding how society was run.
This progressive arc continued, in fits and starts, up through the 1970s, at which point the “First and Second World” countries had huge middle classes whose political influence reflected their shared prosperity, in marked contrast to previous eras. 

If the “left” is understood to be a political force committed to greater economic and political democratization, then this three-century-long arc can be understood as the product of a succession of victories for the Left.
Then came Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman and friends.
For the past three and a half decades, the left in the Northern Hemisphere has failed utterly at presenting a vision of a more progressive and equitable society that could garner enough support to counter the neoliberal behemoth that has been rolling back the gains of the past few centuries. 

In retrospect, the left proved irresistible, and was ascendant in aristocratic and oligarchic societies (the success of the Latin American left of the past two decades can be understood in this light). 

But once a substantial, prosperous middle class emerged, the socioeconomic left has had no winning vision for moving beyond the middle-class plateau toward an even more egalitarian and less exploitative society. 

In the wake of this absence, neoliberalism has turned back the tide, and we now live in a society once again dominated by an extremely small elite who have astronomical wealth and a monopoly on political power. The masses work longer for less and are expected to accept their near-absolute disenfranchisement. To make matters worse, this reactionary order dominates a now-globalized economy.
This is not to say that significant progressive victories did not occur over the past four decades in the world’s wealthiest countries. They did, mostly in the struggles against racism, sexism and homophobia. 

But these gains have occurred at the same time as a severe trend toward the consolidation of wealth and political power in the hands of the few. In this regard, the very real persistence of racism, sexism and homophobia should come as no surprise, since the empowered elite remain overwhelmingly white, male, straight and very wealthy. 

Clearly, a successful 21st century left must assure full economic and political empowerment for all the people from previously marginalized social groups. As yet, no such left has emerged to challenge for power.
We remain stranded in a neoliberal world in which Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek aptly observes, “We can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In the current era, the lapdogs of the 1% insist there is no alternative, and the left has had no winning response.
This is where Syriza comes in.
Perhaps the best way to understand what Syriza represents is to recognize the forces aligned in opposition, nothing less than the major European and international governing institutions of contemporary globalized finance. 

These are the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the German government (as the dominant player in the European Union), collectively known as the “Troika.” Compared to these titans, Syriza may seem a feeble, dreamy Quixote. 

But the problem for the Troika is that Syriza represents the interests of not only the Greek people, but all Europeans who fear that their middle-class societies are crumbling due to neoliberal policies in which wealth inequality increases as social services decline. Many want to combat the shattering of the post-World War II European social contract that produced the greatest prosperity and general welfare in the history of the Continent.
Over the past three years, spokespeople for the Troika have nakedly stated that a Syriza victory would lead to greater punishment for the Greek people. Once the snap elections for Jan. 25 were called, a barrage of propaganda poured forth from Brussels and Berlin, warning that electing Syriza would destroy the continent-wide dream of a unified Europe, as well as make the past five years of Greek suffering seem like a cakewalk.

Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, bravely maintained that he could call their bluff, and on Sunday the Greek people voted against the Troika as Syriza finished first in the election by a wide margin and has now formed Western Europe’s first truly anti-neoliberal government in the past few decades.
What happens next? The circumstances of the Greek crisis were dramatically altered only four days before the Greek elections, when the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, announced a continent-wide Quantitative Easing (QE) program. The plan is to create 1.1 trillion euros to help the stalled European economy. 

Syriza’s economists and Tsipras himself had been calling for just such a move, as access to the QE money would substantially lessen the burden of Greece’s debt. However, Draghi shamelessly announced that QE money was not likely to be available to governments that refused to continue programs of economic austerity that were initiated (under pressure from the Troika) as preconditions for earlier loans. 

In other words, if the Greek conservatives won, they’d get the (essentially free) QE money, but Syriza would get it only if it abandoned its promises to the Greek people and continued the hated austerity regime.
In short, Draghi’s words amounted to a multibillion-euro bribe, beseeching the Greek people to reject Syriza, which shows the lengths that the European establishment will go to in order to prevent the implementation of popular progressive-left policies. 

Given that Syriza was an advocate of the very QE program that was adopted (minus the exclusion of Syriza, of course) further suggests that what the European elites perhaps fear most is a successful left-wing government in Greece. 

To make matters worse for Syriza, the releasing of the QE money makes it easier for the rest of the EU to absorb Greece’s exit (the previously dreaded “Grexit”) from the common currency, which could happen if the country is forced into an un-negotiated default on its debt - something that Tsipras and the majority of the Greek people want to avoid.
Which perhaps brings us to the most important question about Syriza: What can a left government in a small country of 12 million people do to take on the coordinated forces of global capitalism? This is, of course, something we will all learn over the coming months. But looking at Syriza’s policy platform, its immediate proposals seem quite modest for something that was so feared by the powerful.

Syriza has maintained throughout this election cycle that it wants Greece to remain within the European Union, and to do so would agree to pay back at least part of its debt while seeking only partial debt relief, in largely unthreatening ways that could be facilitated by the very quantitative easing that the ECB initiated a few days before the election. 

However, Syriza calls for something that is at the root of its popularity with the Greek people, but which utterly cannot be tolerated by the neoliberal rulers of the new Europe. That is the reversal of domestic austerity policies, by taking actions such as reinstating the minimum wage, once again respecting collective bargaining agreements, and expanding public programs and infrastructure. 

Indeed, while Syriza’s core members have Marxist backgrounds, their immediate economic program is little more than progressive Keynesian social democratic proposals adjusted for a crisis situation. No Joe Stalin, that. More like a modest FDR trying to alleviate the immediate suffering of people, but 100% unacceptable to Angela Merkel’s crew.
Opposing austerity means nothing more than bringing back the mainstream policies of mid-20th century industrial societies, but that represents an existential threat to the logic of neoliberalism and must be drowned in the bath.

Thus, even before Syriza has a chance to introduce modest social democratic policies (which remain in place in Northern European countries), let alone anything more radical, Tsipras and Syriza will spend their initial days, weeks, even months in government in a diplomatic trial by fire, attempting to win concessions from the (hostile) Troika in order to end domestic austerity programs without being expelled from the euro currency or going bankrupt.
So, returning to the issues raised earlier in this essay, how then is Syriza a beacon of light for the people of the world, aspiring for an even better society than the social democracies of mid-century Western Europe, the United States and Japan? 

First, let’s understand what Syriza inherits as a result of the cruel austerity regime that has led to an unprecedented social crisis entering its sixth year: consistent 25% general unemployment, more than 50% youth unemployment, a widespread exodus of Greek youth to other countries in pursuit of jobs, the loss of health care for a third of the population, the same portion of the population below the poverty line, the appearance of long food lines for the hungry in Greek cities, and the growth of a virulent fascist movement. 

While it’s true that significant advances by the left across history have occurred on account of crises (e.g. the New Deal, the Russian Revolution and so on), Syriza’s appeal, along with the spectacular growth of its Spanish ally Podemos, is about more than just alleviating the crisis - it’s about a common-sense vision for a better, fairer society that goes beyond Europe’s progressive social democracies of the second half of the 20th century. 

And herein lies the tremendous promise of this moment: Out of crisis, an empowered left may be born that not only takes on neoliberalism, but also raises the specter of something truly worth fighting for, the most humane and egalitarian technological societies yet.
Even Syriza’s advocacy of Keynesian policies is cast as championing democracy in a way that’s a direct challenge to the Troika. In an era when neoliberalism has been exposed by its internal crises and the fact that it serves only the few and not the many, Keynesian programs can be seen as reasserting the role of democratic decision-making in humanizing the economy. 

After all, John Maynard Keynes called for government intervention in the economy, and Syriza is proposing exactly that. That’s people power over money power, and the party made it a main plank in its platform.
Conspicuously absent from Syriza’s program is anything resembling an Eastern European communist command-economy strategy, and this brings us to the core reason that Syriza has revolutionary promise. 

The party (and its movement) is very much a 21st century radical left political formation. 

It is informed by a version of socialism that resonates more with the anti-globalization movement’s participatory “another world is possible” vision than the Soviet Union’s top-down “actually existing socialism” (indeed, there remains a Soviet-modeled Greek Communist Party, the KKE, that will win seats in Parliament and that views Syriza as its mortal enemy). 

Many humanists and leftists around the world breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed - finally they dreamed they would be able to work toward a socialist future unburdened by the horrors and stigma of Soviet totalitarianism. 

Thus, for Syriza, countering neoliberalism with classical Keynesian policies that previously had produced the most egalitarian and prosperous societies to date is merely the foundation point from which to build that other possible world.

Syriza and Podemos represent the coming of age of a post-Soviet era European radical politics. So, yes, while Syriza’s current electoral platform focuses almost exclusively on the pressing needs of the Greek crisis, the deeper politics of Syriza are rooted in working-class empowerment and the participatory democracy of social movements (as exemplified by the network of cooperatives that have emerged in Greece during the crisis). 

These politics are very 21st century: They are distinctly anti-authoritarian, internationalist, for environmentally sustainable development, for clean energy, for free public education through college, they’re anti-racist, anti-war and anti-economic inequality. 

They are OK with markets within limits and regulations, trust science and posit that living in a technological society means that the benefits of increased labor productivity should assure that no one has to work excessively just to scrape by, and no one has to be poor (Podemos, Syriza’s Spanish ally, which is also soaring in the polls, is even calling for experiments in a humanist prosperity that rejects capitalism’s “growth at all costs” ethos). 

And yes, the party is pro-democracy, with faith in social movements and local organizations to make decisions about their communities.
It’s not unlike what we heard being promoted when the turtles and the Teamsters marched together in Seattle, which finally brings us back to the United States.
Two and a half months ago, immediately following the crushing defeat suffered by the Democrats, I wrote an article for Truthdig calling for Americans to use the Progressive Caucus in congress as a springboard to take over the Democratic Party and reinvigorate a progressive-left movement in the realm of electoral politics (paralleling the tea party challenge to the GOP).

Syriza’s victory in Greece, the spectacular rise of Podemos in Spain and even the surge of the Greens in England show that this is not a pipe dream - millions upon millions of Americans agree with a progressive-left program for the simple reason that it’s a sane, common-sense vision for dramatically improving our society, which means dramatically improving the lives of the majority of people.
Electoral rules in the U.S. are different from the parliamentary systems of Europe, which is a huge barrier to third-party success here. 

Still, the key to an electoral strategy is the consolidation of a left-progressive electoral movement, which could include Democrats and non-Democrats (of course, fighting for electoral reform is an essential plank of such a movement). After all, Bernie Sanders founded the Progressive Caucus and he’s not a Democrat himself, even though he caucuses with them in the Senate.
American “millennials” are overwhelmingly progressive, but their near-total absence from the polling places in the midterm election betrayed their dismay with the current, flaccid Democratic Party. In a world of global interconnectivity, progressives can easily spread word of a charismatic left inspiring a part of the world roughly as prosperous and “developed” as the U.S. 

We need a left that won’t squelch innovation or attempt to control every aspect of our lives, but rather is committed to a fuller version of freedom than currently on offer in America, a left that can be readily translated to this country where millions know in their hearts that they don’t have to live in a race- and class-based caste system, in debt servitude to oligarchic masters, while burning ourselves off the planet. 

We know that another, much better world is possible.
On Sunday, the Greeks proved that their invention - democracy - still terrifies oligarchs and can challenge the rule of the global one percent. It’s a brilliant starting point.
Alan Minsky is the program director of KPFK Radio Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to Truthdig. Special thanks to Meleiza Figueroa for her research assistance.
AP/Petros Giannakouris

Entering the Syriza Age

Syriza supporters at a rally outside Athens University Headquarters in Athens. Photo: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
Syriza supporters in Athens(Pic: M Bicanski/Getty)
by Sofia Tipaldou, Counterfire:

Greek socialist Sofia Tipaldou gives her reaction to Syriza's vote and those of the other political parties in last Sunday's elections.

Ever since I was born, I remember Greece governed by the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) or New Democracy (ND), until 2012 when for the first time they governed together, for the country's sake.

Now, a left party got elected for the first time since the fall of the military junta and there is no Papandreou heir in the parliament. Has Greece changed?

The political spectrum has been re-aligned with the entry of the new self-proclaimed center-left, catch-all party, The River (To Potami); the historical low percentage of Pasok following its internal division and the creation of Papandreou's Movement of Democratic Socialists (KIDISO); and the disappearance of Democratic Left (DHMAR).

A general euphoria dominates the (left) press and the social media and optimism for Greece's future with Syriza is widespread within and without Greece. It seems that ND's fear-based pre-electoral campaign did not succeed this time, despite the messianic message that were depicting the end of times should Syriza win the election.

One word of caution. Syriza is not the same now as it was in 2012. It has undergone an internal transformation. The 2012 Syriza that had just risen from 5% to 27% of the vote, becoming the main opposition party changed in the following two years.

The party moderated its anti-systemic rhetoric and formulated concrete and viable policies, including economic policy. During this time, Syriza also welcomed new members; some of which distinguished scientists that benefited the party; others stemming from the old Pasok and from Independent Greeks (ANEL), a move for which the party, and especially its leader, received considerable criticism from within and without Syriza.

Syriza is the big winner, with about 10% increase in votes, but how much has Greek society really changed?

ND has lost the election, its internal dynamic has been broken, and its future perspectives seem to be deteriorating; but still almost one out of three Greeks voted it.

And this, after two years of undemocratic policy reforms, brutal police repression of all kinds of public dissent, closing of state-owned national broadcaster ERT and plunging in the press freedom index (more than 50 places since 2009), rise of suicides, drug consumption, and immigration, deterioration of public health and education, dismantlement of middle class, to mention only a few examples.

The other newcomer of the 2012 elections, ANEL, a party of right-wing, ultra-nationalist, neo-liberal, and eurosceptic orientation, despite losing nearly half of its 2012 support, has made it to the Parliament, and - on top of this - it will be Syriza's partner in the government.

This goes far beyond the wildest guesses of many analysts and has even been excluded by Syriza members pre-electorally, but it is a good example of Realpolitik and obviously Syriza's only chance, if it did not want to re-run the elections.

The traditional stubborn denial of Greek politicians to collaborate with others, especially in key moments of history, brought about the awkward situation of having not only the first left government in Greece, but also the first left government that has to pact with a far right-wing party.

Syriza could only choose as a coalition partners the political parties that do not represent the old elite (ND and Pasok) or are not totalitarian (Golden Dawn). So, its options were three: ANEL, The River, and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE).

But, The River and ANEL deny to collaborate with each other, so a government with the support of both forces that could be considered more representative, is out of question. And the KKE which stands close to Syriza's objectives, especially to the far-left fraction within Syriza, categorically denies to ally with anyone since always.

Syriza preferred ANEL to The River based on the pro-EU federalism/against EU-federalism cleavage. The River, on the other side, that leans towards the left, considers Greece's membership in the Eurozone indispensable.

Despite the fact that the new Minister of Economy, Yanis Varoufakis, made clear before the election and soon after taking up the post that a Grexit is unthinkable, Syriza might wanted to have an Ace in the hole in light of the debt's renegotiation with the loaners. That may be an explanation why it proceeded to this unholy alliance with ANEL that made many furious and others sceptic with its viability.

Further right, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn that entered the Parliament for the first time in 2012, is here to stay. With a fall of half a point in its electoral result, it seems to have stabilized its electoral base. Beyond doubt, the fragmentation of the political center has worked in favour of the Golden Dawn.

ND, however far-right it tried to become, with the introduction of far-right politicians in its cabinet (e.g. Adonis Georgiadis, Makis Boridis, Takis Baltakos), did not manage to attract the vote for the Golden Dawn; quite the opposite after failing to please even the ultra-nationalist part of the electorate (and despite the above-mentioned undemocratic measures), it seems that its voters leaked towards the Golden Dawn.

Neither could ANEL attract the vote of this part of the electorate, which might be the good news in the light of a coalition with Syriza.

In sum, Greek society retains a strong conservative and nationalist current. What indeed seems to be changing in Greece is its distrust towards the EU, especially after having experienced the results of TROIKA-led austerity measures. This was the central issue of this electoral campaign.

In sum euro-sceptic parties of the left and right - Syriza, the Communist Party (KKE), ANEL, and the Golden Dawn - make up for the 52.84% of voters. On the pro-European side, ND, Pasok, and The River account together for 38.54%.

Hostility to the EU was the big winner of the 2015 Greek elections, one of the facades of which is Golden Dawn's electoral stability, as it was in the 2014 European elections, while EU-bureaucrats are turning a blind eye. Syriza has been able to capitalize on this mood and to hinder a further rise of the far-right. For now.

The historical responsibility of Syriza is big, not only in terms of domestic policy, but also in the international domain and the leftist-leaning electorates of the whole Europe. The expectations are huge, the room for maneuvering limited.

Talking to fellow immigrant Greeks on election eve, the expectations are this: Syriza does not let us down, at least not a lot.

Being cautious that political reforms in a Eurozone country will be marginal, and will take time, our expectations are centered around social policies; regularization of migrant status and demolition of the disgraceful refugee camps, LGTB rights, control of corruption, abolition of obligatory army service, clearance of police from far-right cores (one out of two policemen in Greece votes the Golden Dawn), freezing of armament expenses.

And mostly, Syriza should fight as much as it can, in order not to become another mainstream party, a new Pasok, full with richly-fed socialists who stand critical towards the people's protest, as it threatens their seats. Syriza should not turn its back on alternative movements and projects, like Skouries, Vio.Me, ERT Open. This would be a good start!

The Lamps are Coming On All Over Europe

George Monbiot
George Monbiot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian:

With the sudden collapse of the neoliberal consensus, it’s time to ditch tactical voting and start choosing what we want.

Here is the first rule of politics: if you never vote for what you want, you never get it. We are told at every election to hold our noses, forget the deficiencies and betrayals and vote Labour yet again, for fear of something worse(1). And there will, of course, always be something worse.

So at what point should we vote for what we want, rather than keep choosing between two versions of market fundamentalism? Sometime this century? Or in the next? Follow the advice of the nose-holders and we will be lost forever in Labour’s Bermuda triangulation.

Perhaps there was a time when this counsel of despair made sense. No longer. The lamps are coming on all over Europe.

As in South America, political shifts that seemed impossible a few years earlier are now shaking the continent. We knew that another world was possible. Now, it seems, another world is here: the sudden death of the neoliberal consensus. Any party that claims to belong to the left but does not grasp this is finished.

Syriza, Podemos, Sinn Fein, the SNP; now a bright light is shining in England too, as the Green party stokes the radical flame that Labour left to gutter. On Tuesday morning, its membership in England and Wales passed 50,000(2); a year ago it was less than 15,000.

A survey by the website reports that in blind tests (the 500,000 people it has polled were unaware of which positions belong to which parties), the Green Party’s policies are more popular than those of any other. If people voted for what they want, the Greens would be the party of government.

There are many reasons for this surge, but one of them must be a sense of popular ownership. Green party policies are determined democratically. Emerging from debates led mostly by younger members(3), they feel made for their time, while those of the major parties appear trapped in the 1980s.

Let me give you a flavour of the political transformation the Green Party seeks. There would be no prime minister of the kind we have today, no secretaries of state.

Instead, Parliament would elect policy committees which in turn appoint convenors(4). It would also elect a First Minister, to chair the convenors’ committee.

Parliament, in other words, would be sovereign rather than subject to the royal prerogative prime ministers abuse, leaders would be elected by the whole body and its various parties would be obliged to work together, rather than engage in perennial willy-waving.

Local authorities would set the taxes they chose. Local currencies, which have proved elsewhere to have transformative effects in depressed areas (see Bernard Lietaer’s book The Future of Money(5)) would become legal tender(6).

Private banks would no longer be permitted to create money(7) (at the moment they issue 97% of our money supply, in the form of debt). Workers in limited companies would have the legal right, following a successful ballot, to buy them out and create cooperatives(8), with funding from a national investment bank.

The hideously unfair council tax system would be replaced by land value taxation(9), through which everyone would benefit from the speculative gains now monopolised by a few.

All citizens would receive, unconditionally, a basic income(10), putting an end to insecurity and fear and to the punitive conditions attached to benefits, which have reduced recipients almost to the status of slaves.

Compare this vision of hope to Labour’s politics of fear. Compare it to a party so mesmerised by the City and the Daily Mail that it has promised to sustain the Tory cuts for “decades ahead”(11) and to “finish that task on which [the Chancellor] has failed”: eradicating the deficit.

Far too late, a former Labour minister, Peter Hain, now recognises that, inasmuch as the books need balancing, it can be done through measures like a financial transaction tax and a reform of national insurance(12), rather than through endless cuts.

These opportunities have been dangling in front of Labour’s nose since 2008(13), but because appeasing the banks and the corporate press was deemed more important than preventing pain and suffering for millions, they have not been taken.

Hain appears belatedly to have realised that austerity is a con, a deliberate rewriting of the social contract to divert our common wealth to the elite. There’s no evidence that the frontbench is listening.

Whether it wins or loses the general election, Labour is probably finished. It would take a generation to replace the sycophants who let Blair and Brown rip their party’s values to shreds. By then it will be history. If Labour wins in May, it is likely to destroy itself faster and more surely than if it loses, through the continued implementation of austerity. That is the lesson from Europe.

Fearful voting shifts the whole polity to the right. Tony Blair’s obeisance to corporate power enabled the vicious and destructive policies the Coalition now pursues(14). The same legacy silences Labour in opposition, as it pioneered most of the policies it should oppose. It is because we held our noses before that there is a greater stink today.

So do we keep voting for a diluted version of Tory politics, for fear of the concentrate? Or do we start to vote for what we want? Had the people of this nation heeded the nose-holders a century ago, we would still be waiting for the Liberal Party to deliver universal healthcare and the welfare state.

Society moves from the margins, not the centre. Those who wish for change must think of themselves as the sacrificial margin: the pioneering movement that might not succeed immediately, but that will eventually deliver sweeping change.

We cannot create a successful alternative to the parties that have betrayed us until we start voting for it. Do we start walking, or just keep talking about the journey we might one day take?

Power at the moment is lethal. Whichever major party wins this election, it is likely to destroy itself through the pursuit of policies that almost no-one wants. Yes, it might mean five more years of pain, though I suspect in these fissiparous times it won’t last so long. And then it all opens up.

This is what we must strive for; this is the process that begins in May by voting, regardless of tactical considerations, for parties offering a genuine alternative. Change arises from conviction. Stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope.

2. Green Party office, by email, 27th January 2015
13. I was not the first to propose these alternatives to austerity Peter Hain has just discovered, but even I had got there by 2011:

First We Take Athens: Europe’s Debt Colony Revolts

Post image for First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts
Syriza MEP Manolis Glezos faces off with a riot cop in 2011
by Heathcote Ruthven, Roar Magazine: 

Syriza’s victory - a product of Greece’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics - will resound throughout Europe.

In April 1941, after nearly a year of the Greeks staving off Italian forces, the armies of the Third Reich rolled their tanks into Athens. 

An Evzoni guarding the Parthenon was ordered to replace the national flag with the fascist ensign. After taking it down, he wrapped himself in the redundant flag and jumped to his death from that democratic theater rock.

One evening, barely two months later, Nazi troops were toasting Hitler’s invasion of Crete. Two boys - including the then 18-year-old Manolis Glezos - armed with a knife and lantern, snuck past them, into the Acropolis and captured the billowing Swastika. 

That evening they tore it to shreds and buried it, keeping rags as souvenirs. Telegrams blazed around the continent, and the action became a call to arms for resistance movements in Greece and beyond.

Why the harsh treatment?

Throughout his life, Glezos has been sentenced to death three times; spent over a decade incarcerated; been memorialized on a Soviet postage stamp; written six books; innovated new systems of flood preventative water irrigation and has been granted honorary professorships in geology, civil engineering, and philosophy. 

Now 92, he is one of the most prominent members of Syriza - a coalition of radical left parties that has gone from 3% of the national vote in 2004, to 36% today.

Still on the streets in a 2010 Athenian street protest, Glezos was hit in the face by a riot cop and teargassed by another. In 2012, he became a Member of Parliament, and as of 2014 he is representing the party in European Parliament. 

Bringing an “anti-government, anti-system and anti-Troika” message to Brussels, he campaigns, amongst other things, for reparations from Germany. Here’s an extract of an open letter he penned last year:
Due to bombings, executions, famine, disease, and reduced fertility, our country lost 13.4% of its population. The USSR 10%, Poland 8%, Yugoslavia 6%. At the same time, it suffered an incredible economic catastrophe: our infrastructure was destroyed, our resources were looted. At the same time, our cultural treasures were stolen and taken to Germany. And yet, 70 years after the end of the occupation our country has not received from Germany any redress, any compensation! When indeed all of the other countries invaded by Germany have received reparations from Germany. All of them except Greece! Why? And furthermore: the loan Greece was forced to make has not been repaid to our country, whereas Germany has repaid the equivalent obligatory loans made by Poland and Yugoslavia. Finally the archaeological treasures and priceless works of art which were stolen from Greece have not been returned. Why? What is the reason for this particularly harsh treatment of us?

Europe’s debt colony

‘Harsh treatment’ indeed. In the past four years Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter. Child poverty is at 40%. A quarter of a million people are without electricity. Unemployment stands at 26%, and most of these people do not receive benefits.

For those in work, job security and wages have been cut and 33% of the population has no health insurance. The list goes on.

The story is a familiar one. The Greek state was lent huge amounts by the IMF and Eurozone countries - it is 175% of it’s GDP in debt - in exchange for brutal austerity conditions to be imposed. Syriza want to stop all of this. 

The new Finance Minister described the bailout deals, with characteristic Greek flair, as “fiscal water-boarding policies that have turned Greece into a debt colony.” He is now aiming to negotiate 50% of their debt to be wiped off (such a thing has happened many times before, including to Germany in 1953).

Syriza now lead the only anti-austerity government in Europe, with the 40-year-old former communist student leader Alexis Tsipras at the helm. Their emphasis on negotiating with their creditors has drawn criticism from the left, with many accusing them of tempering their views or never really having been that radical in the first place.

Syriza seems to understand the fundamental antagonism of its relationship with the Troika: debtor doesn’t want to pay, lender wants its money back. Along with Spain, Italy, and Ireland, they may have a certain ability to bargain collectively. “We both want us to be in the euro. We’re not going to pay though. Kick us out? Then we’ll all leave and your EU is finished,” so to speak.

Roots in years of struggle

No matter how ideologically brilliant this “formidable coterie of academics, human rights advocates, mavericks and visionaries” may be, there have been two prongs of anarchist practice that have made demands for radical change realistic:
  1. The alternatives: the citizen-run health clinics, food centers, public kitchens, legal aid centers, and various forms of mutual aid co-operatives necessitated by the poverty of recent years;
  2. The critique: riots, hunger strikes against incarceration, occupied factories, strikes, the molotovs. Paul Mason describes the Exarcheia district of Athens - “the last of the great bohemias” - as resisting gentrification by “night after night of barricade fighting and random attacks on TV news crews.”
It is only possible for Syriza to exist because of the country’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics. They are the result of years of struggle. To talk about party politics without talking of these networks is entirely illiterate.

What happened in Greece is deeply intertwined with social movements around the world. Syriza would mean nothing without, for example, Spain’s Podemos - a one-year old radical leftist party set to win the 2015 elections. 

Their victory would put an end to the two-party system that has reigned since Franco. Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, took to a stage with Tsipras a few days before the election. Side by side, punching their fists in the air, they looked like two cute drunk IT-workers as they sang along to Leonard Cohen’s classic:
They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
The ‘contagion effect’ of this far left victory will resound throughout Europe, boosting support for a range of left parties: Sinn Féin in Ireland, the Greens in United Kingdom, Die Linke in Germany, Parti de Gauche in France, and also in Greece’s historic nemesis Turkey, where marginalized leftist and Kurdish groups such as the HDP have found an ally in Syriza.

The specifics of these groups are unremarkable enough, but the widespread rejection of traditional political parties, and the breakdown of a parliamentary consensus on debt is something new.

Global resonance

There is a feedback loop. Each of these anti-austerity parties is a product of mass social movements. They were created by these social movements, and in turn, the success of these parties will (hopefully) facilitate those movements to progress in creating non-state, non-market networks.

It reaches far beyond Europe. Since 2011, in South America, North Africa, East Asia, and beyond, prefigurative politics have come to the fore in a previously unimaginable way. 

Around the world, there is a change in common-sense about what constitutes democracy, and how to practice it. These behaviors are the murmurs laying ground for our post-capitalist future.

Stepping down from utopia for a moment. The most important reason for thinking outside Europe is simple and ignored: reparations. There is an absence of discussions about what Syriza’s potential successes here could herald. 

If Germany would repay Greece for the misery it has been in since WWII, it will resound through the (post-)colonized world, and embolden the cries for historical justice long written off as ‘unrealistic.’

Heathcote Ruthven studies Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote his dissertation on the relationship artists and musicians have with capitalism in Iceland. Follow him on Twitter at @heathcoter.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Is Our Federal Government Democracy's Weakest Link?

by Dino Cesta, Online Opinion:

Public institutions help build and protect the fabric of a democracy. But they can also contribute to democracy's downfall.

Democracy's strength is dependent on the health of public institutions forming the foundational pillars of our society.

And human nature is the essential ingredient within society's institutions, which sweeten or sour the experience of democracy, influencing its trajectory to prosperity or unravel to its fatal demise!

How does the heart of Australia's public institutions - the Federal Government - fare in building and protecting democracy's fabric?

Poll results published by the Australian National University's Social Research Centre (ANU-SRC) in "Changing Views of Governance" in August 2014, offers an insight into this question.

The ANU-SRC Poll reveals that when it comes to 'Confidence in Institutions', Australians have a reasonably healthy confidence in its Defence Forces (40%), Police Force (31%), and University System (26%). Australians' confidence in its Legal System, Public Service, and Banking System is much less resounding with each institution receiving 14% respectively.

Of much greater concern are citizens' anaemic level of confidence in the institutions of Churches, Unions, and Federal Parliament, receiving an abysmal 11%, 6%, and 6% respectively.

And on 'Attitudes to Democracy', the ANU-SRU Poll also measured the public's level of satisfaction and trust with Australia's democratic system. The Poll shows satisfaction with democracy peaking in 2007 at 86% with the election of the Rudd Labor Government.

However, since 2007, the Poll reveals satisfaction declining to 72%. This decline is attributable to the turbulent Rudd-Gillard leadership battles destabilising the governing of the nation, and the perception of the Gillard-led Labor minority Government being ineffectual for governing and resulting in poor policy outcomes.

Following the 2013 Abbott Coalition victory, satisfaction levels remained stagnant. And I suspect post the Poll, this satisfaction level has likely declined further due to Australians' dissatisfaction with the Abbott Government's policy backflips and broken promises, particularly in regards to education, health, our national public broadcaster, and the unpopular and inequitable measures announced in its first federal budget. And the Government is not even half way through its first term!

When it comes to the questions of citizens influencing political outcomes through voting, and that whoever is in Government can make a difference in people's and community's lives, the ANU-SRU results again reflect eroding confidence in our political system.

Compared to 70% in 1996, in 2014 only 56% believe their vote made a difference. And a dismal 43% believe it made a difference on who is in power compared to 2007 where the figure stood at 68%.

Describing the low standing of Australia's politicians, corruption crusader Tony Fitzgerald QC wrote a piece titled 'The Body Politic is Rotten' in The Australian in 2012, noting that politicians have a low opinion of each other, which "... includes … lying, cheating, deceiving, rorting, bullying, rumour-mongering, back-stabbing, slander, leaking, dog whistling, nepotism and corruption." Is it any wonder Australians continue to have a low regard of their political masters!

John Adams, the second President of the United States noted, "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide."

Is it premature to surmise that based on these Poll results, Australia's politicians, the central builders and protectors of the pillars of a democracy, are subtly and unwittingly undermining its foundation and risk in time that self-inflicted fatal wound which Adams proclaims?

Recently, Australia's parliamentary leaders have escalated the threat of homegrown terrorism. But are politicians found guilty of corruption, who do not behave with accountability, integrity, and transparency, or break election campaign policy promises, in the same class as home-grown terrorists jeopardising Australia's democratic way of life?

What initiatives can rebuild and strengthen the confidence and attitudes of citizens specifically toward the public institution of the Australian Parliament, and thereby democracy?

1. Parliamentarian Code of Conduct

All Members elected to Australia's Parliament must adhere to a strict and legally binding Code of Conduct, establishing non-negotiable public standards of openness, accountability, ethics, and integrity.

An independent body should develop the Code, which include members of the community and chaired, for example, by an Independent Commissioner of Parliamentary Integrity or by the head of a Federal Anti-Corruption Watchdog. Having Members of Parliament draft their own Code is akin to giving prisoners the keys to their jail cell, and will be met with suspicion and cynicism by citizens.

An Independent Commissioner of Parliamentary Integrity or a Federal Anti-Corruption Watchdog could oversee the Code, investigate breaches, and initiate prosecution where a Member of Parliament breaches the Code.

2. Federal Anti-Corruption Watchdog

To ensure the protection of public trust and strengthen confidence in our democracy, a Federal level Independent Commission Against Corruption must be established. This must be seen as a public interest, not a political based interest, and aimed at restoring faith in the public institution of Federal Parliament.

The Federal 'watchdog' should handle corrupt conduct across all aspects of Government and parliamentary administration, including Federal parliamentarians, the Federal public sector, including government agencies, and the judiciary.

To deny, as Prime Minister Abbott has, that issues of corruption raised at the NSW ICAC does not apply at the Federal level, shows his apathy toward the community's views and you could be forgiven for thinking there is something to hide.

3. Election Commitments

At election time, politicians announce policy commitments. Politicians have a tendency to make statements, promises, or commitments for the sole purpose of being elected and do not always intend fulfilling them. Trust in our elected representatives is thereby severely compromised.

An option for consideration is that all political parties must have all election policy commitments scrutinised and verified by an independent body a minimum three months out from an election.

This provides sufficient time to assess whether individual policies and the package of policies are fully costed and funded, and voters are better-informed and better abled to make a decision on polling day. Further, policy positions should be categorised as either core or non-core.

Policies in the core category are non-negotiable and the elected Government has the right to automatically legislate and pass such policies. For example, a maximum of five core policies are permitted in each term of office.

Citizens will clearly know where parties stand on core policies and will vote accordingly. This ensures the incoming Government has a stronger mandate in fulfilling their core election policy commitments instead of the political posturing as to whether a Government has a mandate on particular policy issues.

This approach will raise the engagement of citizens, be better informed of candidates and political parties positions in and leading up to an election, and a Government can more effectively implement their key policies.

4. Election Funding

Australia's political system is becoming increasingly Americanised, in which the wealthy few can dictate and swing an election result or even specific and sensitive policy issues, such as the mining or carbon tax.

Consideration must be given to an equitable publicly funded model for election campaigns. However, non-tax deductible individual private donations are permitted up to an accumulative maximum, for example $10,000 annually, with full public disclosure of donations required.

Every donation must be accounted for and crosschecked against election campaign activities, which will improve the transparency of donations made to parties or individual candidates.

Having some form of public funded model reduces the influence of money within the political system and creates a greater level playing field at election time. This also allows political parties to focus more time on substantive development of public policies.

This will also hope to minimise the risk of political parties being 'bought' on certain policy matters and policies being developed more on merit and in the public interest than private interests.

5. Fixed Terms

To provide greater stability and certainty during the political cycle, terms of Government should be fixed. For instance, a four-year term should be the 'norm' with the election date set in concrete.

This offers Government more time to implement longer-term focused policy commitments and reduce the likelihood of economic decisions developed in accordance with the current ad-hoc political cycle. This should also improve business confidence and greater stability in their investment decisions.

There will be fewer elections, cost savings by staging fewer elections, greater certainty for voting citizens, and greater stability within the public service in serving the Government.

6. Representation

There should be a time limit as to the period an individual remains in Parliament. The maximum term for a Prime Minister should be capped at, for example, two terms, or eight years. The maximum term for a Member of Parliament should also be capped at, say, three terms or twelve years, unless elected Prime Minister in which case the two terms start afresh.

This helps in constantly refreshing our democracy with new people, new visions, and ideas for the betterment of our society.

For Australia to thrive as a shining light of democracy, we must strengthen our public institution of Federal Government. The proposals may be considered politically unpalatable, but it is the long-term health of Australia's democracy, which is at stake.

Do we prefer to re-nourish and nurture a system, though not perfect, has outlasted other systems of Government over the centuries, and given its people economic, social and cultural prosperity? Or do we prefer to behave drunkenly toward the timeless values, which are at the heart of democracy?

The interconnected chain of our public institutions is only as strong as its weakest link! With Federal Government as potentially our weakest link, only time will tell whether we have chosen the former, or fulfilled the latter and Adam's death wish!

About the Author

Dino Cesta is a freelance communicator of thoughts, opinions and ideas on politics, economic and social issues and public policy. Cofounder of the non-profit organisation Hand in Hand Arthouse, and the Newcastle Italian Film Festival, Dino graduated with a Bachelor of Economics and Master of Politics and Public Policy. You can follow Dino on View from the Obelisk or Twitter on @dinoc888