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Is Canada Ripe for a Syriza Movement?

Our cautious left-of-centre parties could learn a thing or two from bold Greek coalition.

Crawford Kilian 27 Jan

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Last Sunday's election of a new Greek government has been portrayed in the media as an ominous development. After all, "Syriza" is an acronym for "Coalition of the Radical Left," which for most of our media might as well be "League of Maniacal Evildoers." Few commentators have actually discussed whether Syriza's policies might actually be good for Greece; by definition they're the fruit of a poison tree.

The North American media have in general been hostile to the "left" and "radicals" since the 19th century, when the terms were associated with dangerous immigrants and crazy people who wanted to abolish slavery and give blacks the vote. But in the last 40 years or so the framing of our political debate has carefully pushed such terms literally out of sight and out of mind. Whatever solutions we may come up with, they will have to come from a narrow spectrum known as the "centre-right."

Since the Second World War, that framing has kept the left out on the fringe with the lunatics and terrorists. Inconvenient governments, however democratically elected, could be safely overthrown if only they could be shown to be "communist," "leftist," or even just "left-leaning."

So in a joint venture, British and American agents engineered the overthrow of elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952, bringing back the Shah and his secret police, the Savak. The elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz was ousted with CIA assistance in 1954, beginning a long era of repression and genocide against the Maya.

When the Greek colonels overthrew democracy in its birthplace in 1967, the Americans were not directly involved, but they were aware of what was going on and supported the junta. It took seven years before the junta collapsed.

And of course the United States was behind the military coup that overthrew Chile's elected president Salvador Allende in 1972. Henry Kissinger, then the secretary of state, had strongly backed the coup, saying the Chileans could not be allowed to be "irresponsible" in choosing such a leader. Like Iran, Guatemala, and Greece, Chile was consigned to years of state terror.

Unwritten doctrine

An old Chinese saying advises, "Kill the chicken to scare the monkey," meaning you kill the weaker enemy to scare the stronger enemy. Such ousters were intended as a deterrent to anyone who might think their country would be better off with left-wing policies. With Chile it was finally clear: no serious left-winger would be allowed to take power democratically in any region where the U.S. felt it had strategic interests.

Almost 45 years after Allende, that unwritten doctrine was challenged in Greece on Sunday. Syriza won the election with 36 per cent of the vote -- pretty close to the 39.62 per cent that got Stephen Harper a majority in 2011. With 149 seats, just two short of an absolute majority, Syriza has become the government with the aid of a populist far-right party, Anel, noted for its anti-semitism and German-focused xenophobia.

Alexis Tsipras, Syriza's leader and Greece's new prime minister, is only 40. Wikipedia says he was born on July 28, 1975, "three days after the fall of the Greek military junta." He started as a Young Communist but stayed in the left-wing coalition Synaspismos after the Greek Communist Party left it. He is clearly a very smart man with a lot of political experience.

Six years of failure

But his experience on the Athens city council has not equipped him to deal with neoliberals in the European Union like Angela Merkel. The economic powers in Europe have been locked into austerity as the only thinkable response to the meltdown of 2007-08; seven years of failure have not weakened their resolve to continue the beatings until morale improves.

Tsipras's victory has already encouraged others. Spain's Podemos (an ironic translation of Obama's "Yes we can") has grown in less than six months from nothing into the country's second-largest party, with 300,000 members. Like Greece, Spain has taken a beating from its E.U. partners, and morale has not improved.

Least of all has morale improved among the young southern Europeans who have paid the costs of the meltdown and E.U.-decreed austerity -- in careers lost, families struggling, educations wasted. For Greeks, Italians and Spaniards born since Tsipras, economic depression is the basic condition of life. Ireland is exporting its young people again. Even social democracies like Sweden and Finland are struggling to make ends meet, and neo-fascist groups are raising the spectre of job competition from immigration to attract new members.

Challenge to the status quo

So Syriza offers a serious challenge to the neoliberals and neo-fascists alike, and to the whole economic order of the European Union. The Americans are likely alarmed as well, but regime change hasn't worked out well in recent years.

More likely, the E.U. will gamble on giving Tsipras enough rope to hang himself. Tsipras, as a onetime Red, no doubt recalls Lenin's wisecrack about the "capitalists selling us the rope we will hang them with." As he and the E.U. try to rope and hogtie one another, Europe's economy will teeter: will Spain go next, and then Italy? If they do, can Merkel and her German austerians survive?

Meanwhile, leftist governments elsewhere must be paying close attention. Ecuador and Bolivia are by western terms "far left," but don't really count. Venezuela is far left too, but evidence suggests that oil can wreck any petro-state, left or right. Cuba's geriatric Reds must worry about taking fire on their left flank from young Cubans like what they were 50 years ago. In Chile, young Communists like Camila Vallejo are now elected members of a coalition government, busy improving that country's education system from within.

Could we see a Syriza or Podemos in Canada? It's clear that our dismal voter-turnout numbers reflect a political alienation far deeper than we would like to admit, especially among our young people. But as bad as their experience has been since 2008, it hasn't been as brutal as that of young Greeks and Spaniards. Even our Occupy movement was more a fad than a coherent political challenge to the status quo.

Young leftists like Tsipras and Vallejo are smart enough to know you don't storm the Winter Palace on the spur of the moment, and expect to win. You go patiently from street demonstrations to election campaigns to legislative committees. You don't lose your temper, you don't give up, and you do win elections.

In the process, you also draw "radical left" back into the frame of political discourse, and open up a new range of solutions to political problems. That may have already begun with Tsipras. In a recent New York Times column, economist Paul Krugman damned and blasted the austerians and said, "If anything, the problem with Syriza's plans may be that they're not radical enough."

Radical or not, Syriza and Podemos pose a powerful challenge to the narrow centre-right spectrum of acceptable thought. That could encourage some of our cautious Liberals and New Democrats to try out some ideas that are radical only by comparison with the dull orthodoxy of Stephen Harper. If they do, they might find that many Canadians are way ahead of them -- including the two out of five who didn't even bother to vote in the last election.  [Tyee]

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