Friday, 23 January 2015

Calling Syriza far left hides the extremism of the far centre

From the Guardian to the Financial Times, from the BBC to the Daily Mail, from Reuters to the Daily Telegraph, the mainstream media is united on one point; the likely winner of the Greek elections on Sunday, Syriza, is a ‘far left’ party. In keeping with the extreme image and hotfoot from page 2 of ‘The Book of Journalistic Clichés’, Syriza’s leader, Alex Tsipras, is invariably labelled a ‘firebrand’.

But after you have traversed excursions into Syriza’s roots as a radical left coalition, you brush up against an inescapably dissonant fact. That what Syriza is advocating is not ‘far’ or extreme in the slightest, but moderate, humanitarian and sensible.

Here’s is a list of Syriza’s ‘far left’ policies, culled from a Guardian article. The party wants to supply free electricity to people who have been cut off, give health insurance to the uninsured, food stamps to children and homes to the (legions) of homeless. In addition, Syriza is determined to massively reduce Greece’s euro debt of €320 billion and cut interest payments, urging an international conference debt relief conference, akin to the one that slashed West Germany’s war debt in 1953. Syriza wants to decrease the tax burden on ordinary Greeks and increase it on corporations. (Corporate income tax in Greece, it should be noted, was scythed in half, from 40 to 20%, by the ‘centre-left’ Pasok party in 2001, the year the country joined the Eurozone).

“There is nothing radical, much less revolutionary, in these policies,” said Greek economist Costas Lapavitsas in December. “They represent modest common sense and would open a fresh path for other European countries.” Syriza itself claims its policies were “standard fare” during the Golden Age of capitalism in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Instead the leftwingers argue that the centre of gravity in politics has shifted so much to the right since the advent of Thatcherism that the party’s proposals now seem radical,” writes one journalist.

And it hasn’t entirely slipped under the radar that Syriza’s policies are eminently sensible. “At the core of Mr Tsispras’s economic platform is debt relief, an idea so unthinkable that nearly every mainstream economist has advocated it,” noted the Financial Times rather sarcastically earlier this month. The pro-globalisation economist, and former European Commission advisor, Philippe Legrain, has come out in favour of a Syriza victory, lauding such an outcome as a “necessary step toward resolving a crisis that has been festering since 2009”.

But still the epigram ‘far left’ is not given up, and not because of lazy journalistic habit. Mainstream commentators must brand Syriza as far left in order to maintain the fiction that the centre itself is not extreme. It was, after all, the political centre that inflicted the current sadistic penance on Greece, an austerity package that has resulted in GDP contracting by 25%, wages falling by a third, and unemployment of 26% and above. “The human cost has been immeasurable, amounting to a silent humanitarian crisis,” says Lapavitsas. “Many families scrape by on seniors’ slashed pensions. Crowds jostle for handouts at food banks. Some children are reduced to scavenging through rubbish bins for scraps. Hospitals run short of medicines. Malaria has even made a return,” writes the definitively anti-leftist Legrain.

And all this to make sure that Deutsche Bank, and other deserving creditors, receive their interest payments.

But Greek austerity is clearly not the first manifestation of the centre’s extremism. The Iraq War of 2003, prosecuted in part by that denizen of the centre-ground, Tony Blair, resulted in between 185,000 and 700,000 deaths. Through deregulation and liberalisation the mainstream was midwife to the huge economic crisis of 2008, and in response, has inflicted the costs of paying for it on those least responsible, whilst showering corporations with tax cuts, and intervening in the market through Quantitative Easing to ensure share values and wealth of the rich are not depleted. Britain is not Greece but the number of people accessing three days’ worth of emergency provisions through food banks in the UK, has increased nine-fold in a single year and now stands at over 900,000. Internationally, the same political mainstream has aided and abetted off-shoring by corporations at every turn (known euphemistically as globalisation), a process that has sent carbon emissions soaring to their highest ever level, as more and more products are transported across the globe, at precisely the time that emissions must be reduced in order to give civilisation a chance of surviving the next hundred years.

Yet, Syriza is a ‘far left’ party threatening the mainstream with its ‘suicidal’ policies. In an honest world, Angela Merkel’s CDU, David Cameron’s Conservatives and Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party would be labelled the ‘far centre’. Of course, they won’t; that immediately sounds like a non-sequitur. Which is precisely why the use of words is so jealously guarded. Nobody wants to spout nonsense, do they?

Recognising the common sense behind Syriza’s positions does not mean it will have an easy time in government. Besides sabotage by the troika, Syriza will find that saving capitalism from itself will not be an easy task in this financialised era, a far cry from the golden years of capitalism, when economic growth seemed impossible to stop. The same dilemmas will face Spain’s Podemos, newly leading the polls in that country, which likens its policies to mainstream Social Democracy or even Christian Democracy in the post-Second World War era.

But if a person is asphyxiating under a concrete slab, the first priority is to lift up  the slab and let them breathe. That is what Syriza can do.


If you want an example of the 'far centre' in all its bizarre glory look no further than IMF chief Christine Lagarde's tribute to King Abudullah of Saudi Arabia

He did a lot for women 'discreetly'. He had this unfortunate habit of beheading people, but, hey, nobody's perfect!


  1. I tag myself as a "far far lefty". :-)
    Austerity is code for financial imperialism.
    As Richard D Wolff basically says.
    Capitalism can not be regulated ammended, or legislated.
    It must be abolished.
    We as a society can no longer afford capitalism.

    1. I agree with the last point but it is not a simple process, just abolishing capitalism. Richard Wolff does say if governments simply try to regulate capitalism, large corporations will, in time, just undo the regulation. When it comes to abolishing capitalism, if you follow what Richard Wolff is saying, he is basically advocating that governments and consumers support and set up worker directed enterprises which will, in time, come to wrest control of the economy from bog standard hierarchical corporations. But in the meantime, he is, I think, saying you need governments to administer the system in a way that favours 'people not private interests' to borrow a slogan from Podemos in Spain. Wolff even supported Hollande becoming French President which I wouldn't have. I think in Greece, the imposed austerity caused so much suffering that Syriza had to take over. It's ironic that a bunch of leftists are forced to run capitalism because capitalists make such a pig's ear of it. It reminds me of that Steve Martin film, the Man with Two Brains, when someone accuses him of 'playing God' and he replies, 'Well somebody has to!'

    2. Democratic capitalism is what is needed, not corporate capitalism.
      Let the CEO of a coal company and his family live at ground zero of thr coal mines.
      let them face the environmental and health consequenes of their profits.
      let their children work in the mines for thirty years.
      capitalism based on debt, goods and services derived from plundering natural resources is unsustainable.
      Today's financial colonialism thrives on cheap labor and raping sovereign countries of their resources.
      As long as the US holds onto the global currency reserve status this will continue.
      Wars feed capitalism, not democracy or freedoms.

  2. Many Guardian readers concur with your piece, judging from the letters page Tues 27 Jan. 'For weeks I have heard this party routinely described as extremist, a threat to the stability of Europe. Who are the true extremists here? Could it be the financiers and rightwing politicians who persist in advocating the austerity programme that led to such hardship in the first place?' And: 'The lesson of the Greek elections in that European rulers are sleepwalking into a collision with their electorate because the core premise of their economic model is faulty.' And perhaps my favourite: 'What is so extreme about rejecting a failed policy responsible for impoverishing millions and for unncesessarily prolonging recession throughout Europe? If what Syriza stands for is 'far-left' (perhaps better described as conventional social democratic politics), why isn't the Guardian 'far-left' too?' Lots of great letters all saying similar things.