Monday, January 26, 2015

Syriza's coalition ... and what it might mean

A few follow-ups to my post on the Greek election yesterday ...

=> Many of the reports in foreign newspapers, whether they were sympathetic or unsympathetic to Syriza, carried some variant of this formulation (which I'm quoting from the Telegraph): "Greece on collision course with rest of Europe after handing general election victory to far-left party that has vowed to reject austerity"

It's interesting to note that in order to be a "far-left party" nowadays, you don't need to be Marxist—you just need to be Keynesian.

More precisely, I guess, what's involved in this case is Keynesian economics combined with a certain amount of economic nationalism and some commitment to what Karl Polanyi termed "the self-protection of society" against the disruptions, dislocations, insecurities, and assorted miseries that can result from the uncontrolled and un-buffered dynamics or a capitalist market economy. That approach used to be called mainstream social democracy (also adopted to some degree, in many countries, by Christian Democratic and Conservative parties, not to mention New Deal Democrats and Eisenhower/Rockefeller Republicans in the US), but now it looks more radical.

Is that package even, necessarily, "leftist"?  That's the next question, to which the answer is ... it depends on the details (and the circumstances).  Today's news from Greece helps bring that out.

=> Syriza won 149 seats in the 300-seat Greek parliament—tantalizingly close to an absolute majority, but not quite there. Today came the news that its coalition partner is not a left or center-left party but an unabashedly right-wing party that calls itself Independent Greeks. This move is unexpected and a bit startling, but there is a certain logic to it, and it even helps confirm some of my earlier surmises about the background and possible significance of Syriza's election victory. What unites Syriza and Independent Greeks is a combination of economic nationalism and opposition to economic "austerity" policies. Here's the report from the BBC's Mark Lowen:
What unites Greece's new coalition partners is fierce opposition to budget cuts. Alexis Tsipras and Panos Kammenos are anti-bailout to the core [JW: i.e., fundamentally opposed to the terms imposed as part of the EU/IMF "bailouts"], frequently hitting out at the architects of austerity in Berlin and Brussels and pledging a new economic path. But that is where their common ground ends. In other areas, the two are unlikely bedfellows.

One is a socially liberal leftist, lambasting the "old faces" of Greek politics. The other is a hardline right-winger on issues such as immigration - and has been around in previous governments for some time. So why would Syriza join forces with Independent Greeks?

Possibly because others refused - or were deemed too soft on the bailout. The River, a new, broadly centrist party which some expected to be the coalition partner, made clear it opposed Syriza's hard rhetoric towards Berlin.

The problem for Mr Tsipras is that many of his own supporters revile Mr Kammenos's conservatism and will be frustrated by the choice. And disappointing his supporters, to whom he has pledged so much, is not something Greece's new prime minister wants to repeat.
The optimistic interpretation is that, in Polanyian terms, this is a "counter-movement" coalition, focused on a shared commitment to the urgent priority of social protection. (If there's anyone for whom that formulation doesn't make immediate sense, see here.)

But that's an optimistic reading, and we'll have to see how this tactical gamble actually works out in practice. It's easy to imagine all sorts of ways it could blow up disastrously; but on the other hand, urgent circumstances sometimes require dangerous gambles. Interesting times ahead ...

—Jeff Weintraub