Interview with Antonis Liakos posted at Analyzegreece.gr
You were just saying that Greece´s moment in Europe is now. Perhaps that sounds self-centred?
Indeed, many will think so. They will say: Greece is a small country; it must adapt itself to Europe. On the other hand, how can we explain the European and global interest in the upcoming Greek elections? A lot of the political debates and academic articles being published now, regard Greece, and are linking the Greek to the European future.
It is not just about what happens in a small country. It´s about Europe’s future direction. Some say sarcastically, “SYRIZA doesn´t provide answers on how to change Greece, how can it change Europe?” That’s the issue. Greece intends to actively participate in the shaping of European perspectives. Something like that has never happened. Greek elections are defined by the dilemmas of today’s Europe. They display, from a reverse point of view, just how deeply Greece is involved in the European dilemmas.
Would you like to elaborate more on these dilemmas?
On the 10th of November I attended a speech by Economics Nobel Prize winner Christopher Pissarides, at Harvard University. Pissarides said the recession and unemployment rates in Europe will worsen, because the policy being currently pursued is structurally defective. This policy attacks labour markets via austerity programs, while the issues that should be tackled with concern debt and the politico-economic riddle. Eurozone countries have the same currency, while interest rates and loan agreements vary across them, so that some win, while others lose. Pissarides put great emphasis on the issue of debt, highlighting the Christian term «forgiveness». This means a generalized and agreed debt cut, and it is in the spirit of SYRIZA’s proposal for a European debt relief conference, ensuring of course that no additional debts will be generated. As you see, we are not talking about an eccentric or populist anti-European proposal, but about serious involvement in the solution of the dept issue, Europe´s problem par excellence.
This is not a choice though, it´s a necessity…
Yes, a pressing necessity. Because the policy pursued suffers from a fundamental contradiction. First they introduce «structural reforms» in order to increase labour’s flexibility and mobility (implementing severe restrictions in employment protection). Then, the austerity program, devised to service debt, results in shrinking the economy that was supposed to recover, and absorb the unemployed through these reforms. Whatever they try to do with one hand, they destroy with the other. This is repeated on regular intervals that in Greece coincide with the Memoranda and Medium Term Fiscal Plan programs. It’s a regenerating downward spiral. These policies are being applied in Greece, the European South and throughout Europe. If this course is not altered, it will create more unemployment and austerity.
The Left, therefore, does not propose just a better negotiation strategy, or appeals such as those of E. Venizelos and S. Theodorakis for a national negotiating team, that are rather meaningless. The Left proposes a different response strategy, one that has been internationally documented even by mainstream economists. But the Left, in order to be able to put forward proposals and to negotiate, has to be able to form a majority government. If this does not happen, and the Left has to collaborate with political forces that move in opposite directions, the result would be like what we see in physics: the wider the angle between the forces of a vector (i.e. the divergence between potential coalition partners), the weaker the resultant force, i.e., the joint political action. And this also means larger margins of interference from the Troika. So the objective is, at least, the formation of a majority government. If the Greek people want to give the Left a chance, they should entrust them with the responsibility to govern.
You have said (also during a dialogue that took place in Avgi and ASKI about the Metapolitefsi era) that the problem facing a left-wing government is not just about the consequences of the crisis, but about the greater transformations of our time. In order to deal with that, we have to come up with a medium-term program.
Greece´s moment on the European stage is a moment of laboratory experimentation in political economy. “But”, we often hear, “how are we going to experiment and not follow what others are doing?” However, the laboratory experimentation began with the Troika. They didn’t come here to remedy the debt problem, but to change the whole of Greek society via this remedy. Herein lies the problem of a medium-term program. The fundamental problem is unemployment and stagnation. How do we achieve development? What kind of development? How do we answer this in the new era?
Take the labour market for instance. Let’s abolish the Memorandum inspired laws. Of course! But what after that? Restore old labour protection laws that ultimately favoured certain professions over others? The theories and practices of flexicurity resulted in widespread job precocity and in the prevalence of part-time employment. The Podemos party in Spain has developed a line of argumentation on the basis of criticism of the concept of growth (see for example, Giorgos Kallis’ article «Prosperity without Growth» in Chronos Magazine, 2/01/2015). Thomas Piketty, in his book «Capital in the Twenty-First Century», regards growth not as a general condition, but as an exception that appeared in post-war Western countries, and has now reached its limits. Inequality has been targeted as the main obstacle to growth and the root cause of crises, and here we have to point out that Greece, during the crisis, became the European champion at producing inequalities. The crisis operated by simultaneously accumulating wealth for the few and poverty for the many.
All this is important in order to understand that Greece has entered into a European debate, already being held on many levels: the political, the academic and within social movements. It is going to be very exciting to live in Greece in the coming years: the implementation of a medium-term program for the Left must be elaborated through envisioning the big transformations of the new era. But, still, the formation of majority government of the Left, is the prerequisite for the restart of the country.
There is a feeling though, very strong in the dominant discourse and among intellectual circles and historians, that Greece should not go “against its destiny.” Greece, they say, at all decisive moments of its history, has aligned itself with Europe: during the War of Independence, Greece choose to became a Western-like state, in the 19th century it chose parliamentarism instead of authoritarian rule, after the Civil War it opted for the Western World, and later on, it joined the EEC, instead of the EFTA (European Free Trade Association), or a non-aligned coalition. Won’t it be a reversal of our course, a tragic mistake to turn against Europe now?
This “narrative” holds, as well as its rival: that Greece has always been a victim of the foreigners, from its first Bavarian King in 1832 to Angela Merkel. It is not difficult to dismantle both narratives. Europe is neither the victimizer nor the saviour of Greece. Europe is neither philhellenic nor anti-Greek. Big historical events in Greece articulate, or influence –positively or negatively– developments in the rest of Europe, and they are interwoven with Europe’s contrasts.
The Greek Independence was an ideal type for the formation of European nationalisms, the Balkan Wars were a prelude to the Great War, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1922-23 served as model for countless other, much larger, ethnic cleansing and national consolidations, the revolt and the suppression of December ’44 in Athens constituted a warning on dilemmas of Europe´s liberation from Nazi occupation, the Greek Civil War was the gateway to the Cold War, Metapolitefsi is a part of the transitions to democracy that took place in many Southern European countries during the ’70s, constituting also a decisive moment in the European integration process. This course is neither obvious nor linear. Often and for different purposes, European troops came to occupy or to help Greece, while the Greek elite relied –ideologically, politically and militarily– on the predominant forces in Europe. The democratic and social advances happening in Europe served as an ideal and an argument for corresponding changes in Greece, while at the same time, Greek resistance against the Junta was a source of inspiration for youth movements in Europe. Therefore, Greece belongs to the forces contributing to the formation of the European landscape (possibly also because of a history and a geography that outweigh its small size), while Europe is at the same time a catalyst for the transformation of Greek society, from the conception of new ideas to their implementation.
This relationship is not linear, because relations between Greece and Europe are subject to readjustment, every time an era ends and the model of economic and political organization changes. And the phases of readjustment are challenging. Today we find ourselves in a similar phase. Still, in the dominant discourse, the crisis is currently represented as a result of the Greek “exception” from the European rule; therefore the policies implemented to overcome the crisis were presented as a faithful adherence to the above rules.
Furthermore, the “one-way road” claim is a key argument used against the Greek Left.
Yes, indeed: “there is no other alternative: you either apply the rules or you will find yourself excluded.” This dilemma is the basis of the argument that purports that Greece is rescued each time it makes the European choice or, in its weak version, that we have to save our country, but without questioning the European choice. This argument is interesting: it expresses a deeper understanding of the EU as a technocratic government from which politics have been banished. But politics mean options. Maybe the European banks believe that they have been shielded from Grexit, but the political earthquake would be devastating. If the left choice in Europe is banished, what will remain of Europe as such?
You know, it was not at all obvious that a society would respond to the crisis by opting for the Left. The answer in other countries is monopolized by the fascist right (France, Hungary) or meta-political indignation movements (Beppe Grillo in Italy). The factor that primarily shaped the Greek Left was the preparation of a dept relief proposal and the will to overcome the crisis, not just as a national, but also as a European challenge. If the Greeks had chosen to overcome the crisis just as a national challenge, we would see more variations of Greek nationalist right-wing movements. Perhaps for the first time, since the era of Greek Independence, Greece does not arrive in Europe as a passive recipient of European policies or as a centrifugal force. These elections constitute one of the most important moments in Modern Greek history. Without exaggeration, it is Greece´s European moment, as well as Europe’s Greek moment. It is not a time for arrogance, but for caution and a deep sense of responsibility!
Antonis Liakos (b. 1947) is a professor of Contemporary History and History of Historiography at the University of Athens and managing editor of the journal Historein.
Translated by: Ioulia Livaditi
1. Evangelos Venizelos, is the leader of the PASOK party and has been Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs since 25 June 2013.
2. Stavros Theodorakis is a Greek journalist and founder of the centrist party “To Potami” (meaning “The River”).
3. Avgi (Greek: Η Αυγή, meaning “The Dawn”) is a daily newspaper published in Athens. It is called the “Daily newspaper of the Left” and is politically affiliated with SYRIZA.
4. ASKI (Contemporary Social History Archives) is Greek archival institution for the history of political and social movements, with a particular emphasis on the history of the Greek Left.
5. Metapolitefsi is a Greek term (Greek: Μεταπολίτευση, literaly: polity/regime change) referring to the period in Greek history after the fall of the Greek military junta of 1967–74 and up until the present day.
6. The article appeared originally in spanish: “La estrategia económica de Podemos va en la buena dirección pero puede, y debe, ir más allá”, Sin Permiso, 28.12.2014.
7. The Greek Civil War was fought from 1946–49 between the Greek government army -backed by Great Britain and the United States-and the Democratic Army of Greece, the military branch of the Greek Communist Party (KKE). The result was the defeat of the Communist insurgents by the government forces.
8. A recent account of the events of December 1944 can be found in Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith´s article for the Guardian “Athens 1944: Britain’s dirty secret”, 30.11.2014.