Capitalism, Greece, and the End of Lesser-Evil Choosing

Housing rights activist Ada Colau

This article originally appeared at

The question of whether to vote for the lesser evil in the upcoming presidential election is being resolved even as we wrestle with it. The last few years of global capitalist change and the response thereto in Greece show the historic moment now breaking out of such dead ends. 

Greece, like the United States, was long dominated by two old parties. As they divided governmental power between themselves, they became ever more alike. One, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), “moderated” over time and eventually even embraced the vicious austerity imposed on Greece by Europe’s conservatives. The other, New Democracy, represented Greece’s corporate and wealthiest elites allied with whatever conservative cultural and regional allies they could find. As with the Democrats and Republicans in the United States and parallel dualisms elsewhere, a changing global capitalism is dissolving this old style of politics. 

In 2004, a coalition of the left, disgusted with PASOK’s “moderation,” formed the new Syriza party. It got the 2–4 percent of the Greek vote expected to be its limit by the complacent old Greek political establishment. Meanwhile, capitalism went on relocating from its old centers (Western Europe, North America, and Japan) to its newer and more profitable factories, offices, and stores in China, India, Brazil, etc. The lure of much lower wages for workers who could easily be supervised and controlled from great distances thanks to telecommunications proved irresistible. Workers’ standards of living in the old centers atrophied while in the new developing zones, the regional partners engaged in relocating capitalist production became very wealthy in a sea of still- poor masses. Capitalism’s global relocation thus deepened wealth and income inequalities in all countries, strained existing economic and political alignments, provoked excessive debt manipulation everywhere, and eventually crashed global capitalism in 2008. 

‘‘ Syriza underestimated how its rise threatened the lesser-evil stagnation of conventional European politics”

Thus began the demise of the old political deals, organizations, and alignments exposed by their own failures to anticipate, let alone prevent, the crash. The death of the old system was ensured by its two- pronged response to capitalism’s crash: (1) using public funds to bail out the very fi nancial institutions and other major capitalists who caused the crisis and (2) deciding to shift the costs of both crisis and bailouts onto the mass of middle- and lower- income people by imposing “austerity” on them. 

This blatant outrage to both democratic sensibilities and even minimal standards of justice and decency now provokes masses of people to move toward new, different political alignments. Greece epitomizes this process, as Syriza grew from single- digit support to last July’s stunning 61 percent victory in a referendum on its stance against austerity. The old Greek parties’ support collapsed, especially that of PASOK. Something similar is happening in Spain around the Podemos political formation and alliances. The signs are there as well in Jeremy Corbyn’s struggle for Labour Party leadership in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the U.S. Democratic Party. 

What these and many other comparable examples in other countries share is the dawning recognition that an old politics is giving way to a new politics. The new has been brought on by fundamental changes in how and where capitalism works its mechanisms of deepening inequality (à la Piketty), undermining economic security, and constricting or simply ignoring democracy. 

An immense new political space and opportunity has been opened on the left. A crisis- ridden capitalism that serves an ever- smaller slice of the population in capitalism’s old centers increasingly alienates millions. At the same time, old forms of expressing anger, resentments, and demands for change— even modestly— will no longer do. They are too compromised, too complicit in what caused the 2008 crash and the bailouts and austerity shifts thereafter. 

Something new is emerging to express fast- maturing disaffections with austerity and with the capitalist system that needs and imposes it. This is happening today in many places. So now is precisely the time to seize the moment and break with the old parties and the old selection of the lesser evil between them. The conditions for the success of that break are in place and increasingly beckon us not to miss a historic opportunity.

The about- face in Greece in July shows the immense stakes of the heightened level of political struggle shaking capitalism. Led by Germany, most of Europe’s governments decided to risk the decades- old project of European unity by using all their power and wealth to crush the leadership of one of their poorest member states, the new Syriza government in Greece. On full display was the savagery of literally denying Greece the currency needed for its economy to function even minimally. That this went against the democratic referendum results made no difference. No matter that large numbers of Greek citizens suffered severe poverty and deprivation, or that growing numbers of young Greeks have emigrated, or that it consigned Greece to an almost colonial substatus within Europe. The enraged old parties of Europe ruthlessly tried to strangle the foremost example of “no- more- lesser- evil” politics after it won multiple elections in Greece. 

The Greeks seem to have been ill prepared for the onslaught they suffered, this savage counterattack against their struggle to break out of old politics. Syriza underestimated how its rise threatened the lesser- evil stagnation of conventional European politics. It was not prepared for the exit from the Euro that, if properly prepared, might have enabled a real alternative to capitulation. But more important is the lesson being learned: breaking from lesser- evil politics is not merely about breathing fresh air into stale political compromises and corruptions. It threatens a capitalism that has secured for itself the protection of lesser- evil politics. 

Syriza, like Podemos in Spain and their counterparts growing everywhere, knew that the path forward out of lesser- evil politics would not be straight, upwards, and onwards. There would be reverses and battles lost, like the July decision by the Tsipras government to accept the harsh terms of economic survival imposed by the German- led troika. However, all the conditions that provoked the breakout from lesser- evil stasis are only pressing the poor and middle classes further in the direction that Syriza courageously pioneered. After what happened in Greece in July, Greeks and their counterparts across Europe and beyond better understand what they are doing, what they are faced with, and how they need to plan for and coordinate sharper breaks from a fast- polarizing and increasingly unacceptable capitalism.

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