The failure of Syriza is a failure of democracy itself

There are only thirty two surviving complete Greek tragedies known to exist, all written by one of three authors – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Yet as of 2015 it is pretty safe to say that a thirty third Greek tragedy has been completed. This one has been written by too many people to name, but it could have been written by the one and only George Orwell. Much like Animal Farm, this new tragedy involves a political revolution full of hope turning so sour that the new boss appears just as bad as the old boss. Such is the failure of Syriza.

Syriza – the Coalition of the Radical Left – won power in Greece, following the January elections of this year, promising to abolish the austerity that had crippled Greece since 2010. Yet by July we saw the Syriza led government locking Greece into a harsh new austerity deal. They locked Greece into the same policies which had created 25 percent unemployment and led to 40 percent of Greek children being pushed below the poverty line. By August Prime Minister Tsipras had resigned, new national elections had been called and Syriza has officially gone into full meltdown. One in six Syriza MPs have left to form a new anti-austerity party and 53 of the Syriza’s 200 odd central committee have last week resigned in protest at their own party’s election-promise breaking actions.

In many of the Greek tragedies it is fate that brings about the downfall of the characters. In Animal Farm it is the fundamentally selfish and corrupt nature of characters. Yet in the tragedy of Syriza I don’t believe these two factors are significant. Tsipras did not sell out his people for power or riches – neither of which he has gained since July. Nor was it written in the stars. No, the tragedy of Syriza is that they promised change through democratic means in a democracy that did not allow it. The limitations of parliamentary democracy left Tsipras and his government powerless.

We are brought up to believe that since we live in a democracy we have a say. We can, if we wish, have political influence. The homeless person gets the same number of votes as the billionaire. Correct. Yet the depressing truth, as Syriza showed us, is that in many situations it doesn’t matter who you vote in.  Many special interests and hyper-privileged groups are beyond reproach – even beyond the reach of a government who wishes to take them on. Of course you can tinker at the edges, but a parliamentary democracy is not designed as a tool for transformative change.

Syriza failed to end austerity in Greece because, despite being the elected government, they did not have control of the Greek economy. The Greeks, along with most of the rest of Europe, lost much of their financial power when they signed up to the Eurozone. The European Central Bank now determines monetary policy in Greece and elsewhere. They lost the rest of their financial power when out of desperation they began making deals with the IMF and the European Commission in 2010. Greek people rightly believed that by electing a party into government that party would be able to implement its agenda. Yet all they could do was elect a government that, at best, could lobby the unelected bankers in Brussels and Washington who really make the decisions. And these unelected bankers were pretty keen to ensure the banks got all the money they claim to be owed, at whatever cost to the people of Greece.

The situation in Greece may seem extreme but the facts, when it comes to the state of their democracy, are not too dissimilar from most other nations. Most western nations have independent central banks. Despite John Howard’s insincere promise to keep interest rates low during the 2004 election, monetary policy is not actually something that any political party in Australia (and, by extension, no voter) can seriously influence. Why it shouldn’t be is unclear to me. In a democracy, citizens should have some influence over such a huge area of public policy.

Governments the world over are also restricted by World Trade Organisation judgments. In the eighties, European countries banned the sale and importation of meat containing growth hormones. This came in response to significant consumer concern around food health and safety issues. In 1996, the US and Canada challenged these bans through the WTO. The WTO dispute resolution panel sided with the US and overturned the bans. Whether or not the bans were necessary on safety grounds or not is almost beside the point; communities should have the right to decide what products are sold in their own shops. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if this bunch of unaccountable neo-liberal lawyers didn’t seem to always side with the richest, most-business friendly nations.

We have gotten to the point where multinational corporations can now sue a democratic nation in order to maximise its profits, regardless of what is in the best interests of the people of that country. Currently, the Tobacco giant Phillip Morris is suing Australia for enforcing plain packaging of cigarettes. They have the right to do this under the investor-state dispute settlement provisions of a 1993 bilateral agreement with Hong Kong. The case is being heard in a closed door session in Singapore. Even if Australia wins the case, the fact that we have to spend 50 million dollars in legal fees just to enact a decision that was taken in the best interests of our citizens is outrageous. There are similar provisions in the proposed Australia-China free trade deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

National governments are of course also limited by national constitutions. They are necessary to prevent government over-reach and to protect the minority from the majority you might say. Indeed. Yet much of what constitutions prevent have little to do with protection of civil liberties. They are inherently conservative things really; of course the details of various national constitutions differ, yet, to speak generally, they limit the ability of governments to make big sweeping changes. It was touch and go whether or not Obamacare would be classed as an over-reach of legislative power. To think that the Supreme Court nearly banned the democratically elected US Congress from making even moderate improvements to the healthcare of its citizens! Ben Chifley wasn’t so lucky. When he tried to nationalise Australia’s banks so that they would operate for the benefit of the people rather than for private profit, he was told by the High Court that it was not in his governments power to do so.

Vladimir Lenin once characterised western parliamentary democracy as “wretched, false, a democracy only for the rich, for the minority.” Given all of the above, he may not have been too far off the mark. In most cases, it seems that significant economic decisions are beyond the reach of the people. The profits of the rich are institutionally and constitutionally protected with a near-religious reverence. Lenin recognised that since the rich (in income and social capital) tend to control the media, the education curriculum and generally set social norms, the majority of people adopt the ideology of the rich even if it is against their own interests. This helps explain why, without revolutionary leadership, people tend not to vote in politicians who would rock the boat too much. Yet my point is that, given the constraints placed on national parliaments when it comes to controlling economic policy, even if a radical group of politicians (such as Syriza) were to be elected they would still be largely powerless to implement real change. Of course none of this is to say that we shouldn’t be glad at the development of liberal democracies out of monarchies and dictatorships. Indeed in Democracy and Dictatorship, Lenin acknowledged that parliamentary democracy “represents a great historical advance”. Yet he added that “but not for one minute must you forget the bourgeois character of this democracy”.

In the sense that parliamentary democracies don’t seem very able to facilitate radical economic change, Lenin is right to characterise this style of democracy as inherently bourgeois. It’s not just the failure of Syriza. It’s the dismissal of Whitlam after his rapid-fire implementation of leftist policies. It’s the 1953 Iranian CIA-backed coup which overthrew a democratically elected government after they nationalised the nation’s oil reserves. It’s the collapse of the Union of the Left in France in 1984 after Socialist President Mitterrand was forced to choose between his socialist program and membership of the European Monetary System. It’s even the attempt to purge labour members to ensure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t become Leader of the Opposition in Britain. Liberal democracy means power to the people, unless the people want socialism.

If it is the case that socialism is more or less incompatible with parliamentary democracy, then obviously this is a big problem for socialists. It is one of the reasons that many leftists abandoned socialism and radicalism and turned towards the Third Way. Yet Third Way giants like Clinton and Blair went so far centre that their policies protected corporate profits and accepted inequality as the norm. If it is the case that socialism and liberal democracy are incompatible, then perhaps it is not socialism that should be abandoned but liberal democracy. Certainly this is the position of the Marxists. Marx and Engels in their last joint preface to the Communist Manifesto in 1872, specifically warned that workers cannot simply take control of a bourgeois system of government and wield it for their own purposes. The working class, they said, must smash the system and start afresh.

Of course all this talk of smashing sounds rather terrifying – perhaps because one can easily imagine it turning into the French Terror. A system of government that does not include elements of democracy and liberalism will inevitably lead to reactionary abuses of the people. The people have come to expect the ability to speak freely on political matters. They have come to expect a government that at the very least pretends to seek their mandate every few years at the ballot box. If they don’t get it they complain of human rights abuses. And the only way for the state to prevent that discontent from turning into political upheaval is to crush the opposition – often violently (think of Tiananmen Square). Even if a government was implementing radical economic reforms for the benefit of the majority, it is hard to see how it would ever be seen as legitimate unless it was willing to submit itself for formal judgment via elections.

So perhaps the answer is not less democracy but more democracy. The impotence of modern parliamentary liberal democracies lies in the fact that economic decisions have now been taken away from the people. They must be returned. Syriza tried to re-shape Greece without re-shaping the system it operated within. They should have realised that they were doomed and instead fought to reclaim the ability to make economic decisions. This, of course, would involve leaving the Eurozone (a system where the poor must adjust their financial policies to suit the needs of the rich) – a position now adopted by Popular Unity, the anti-austerity ex-Syriza breakaway group.

More broadly, leftists must fight against any trade deals or international treaties that restrict the ability of communities to control their own affairs. Many leftists are internationalists and sympathetic to these treaties, yet internationalism has these days simply meant international capitalism. We should be campaigning for constitutional change to make radical economic change possible. Private property should not be a constitutional right. Governments should be able to redistribute and nationalise if they have a mandate to do so.

We should not be happy with democracy consisting of an election day every three or four years. Leftists must invigorate the people and shake up the political class with a greater emphasis on democratic participation. Governments should be consulting the people more directly more regularly, for example with regular compulsory town hall debates between politicians and citizens. Senior bureaucrats should have to justify their decisions at town hall meetings too; or on online forums. We have jury duty, what about policy duty? Groups of citizens are called up and asked to discuss key policies with the relevant government minister. What about cabinet duty? A group of random citizens are given the opportunity to contribute to cabinet discussions each time cabinet meets. Elitists may worry that random citizens will come up with crazy proposals – and this new focus on participation would require a culture shift no doubt – but I think you’ll find that at least the average person will push for their own interests to be looked after ahead of multinational corporations. How about the Minister for Indigenous Affairs be directly elected by aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? How about women be allowed to directly elect the Women’s Affairs Minister? And democracy, radical participatory democracy, should not simply be left to the government sphere. Compulsory workers representatives on corporate boards would help democratise the private sector and hopefully inject a sense of humanity into it.

In summary, the system we live in currently is conservative, restrictive and favours the rich. It is the prerogative of leftists everywhere to shake it up. Work within the system to create practical change if you wish, but once you have gained a bit of power, be sure to try and change the system itself. If we can change that system just enough then maybe, one day, we will make real transformative change possible.

Elliot Brice is a secondary school teacher. He has a BA (Hons.) in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne.

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