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A 21st Century Left Rises: Syriza’s Victory and Its Relevance for the U.S. and the World

Posted on Jan 27, 2015

By Alan Minsky

  Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras speaks to his supporters outside Athens University Headquarters following a landslide victory. AP/Petros Giannakouris

The Greek election Sunday night produced a historic moment, one that millions of people have long awaited: Syriza’s triumph was the first time that a radical-left party has won an election in Europe since the Cold War began (and arguably, ever). The euphoric celebrations in Athens came as no surprise—very little lifts people’s hearts like the dream of a truly egalitarian society.

Of course, after five years of economic austerity, life in Greece these days is more nightmare than dream.

Now that the Greek people have defied the global ruling class by electing Syriza, the question shifts to whether the coordinated forces of global neoliberal capitalism will allow an alternative economic model to take root, one that prioritizes the welfare of the common people over that of the 1 percent. What happens next in the country where democracy was born is of the utmost importance to people around the world, including in the oligarchic United States.

Before addressing the extremely difficult circumstances facing the next Greek government, let’s stay focused on why this moment is so huge—and not just because it will roil international markets and destabilize the euro. Those things are very important, but let’s think even bigger.

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Syriza’s triumph throws into clear relief the most important political issue of our time. Is it possible for a left political formation to challenge, win victories against and ultimately overthrow the dominant economic and political paradigm of the past four decades? To be clear, I’m referring to the Reagan/Thatcher/Clinton/Blair neoliberal order, aka contemporary globalized capitalism. Furthermore, if victories are possible, what would such a left look like? Could its vision for a better tomorrow capture the imagination of the world’s people? How would addressing climate change be central to its program? And what impact might this political situation have on domestic politics in the U.S.?

All of us, everyone in the world today, have been living through a three-decade-long counterreaction to a historical arc with its roots in the European revolutions that began in the late 17th century. Viewed from this broad perspective, the major societies of Europe and what we know as the “West” have generally evolved from autocratic feudal regimes in which very few people held economic and political power toward greater democratization (keeping in mind, of course, their brutal, and anything but egalitarian colonial projects). In other words, in Europe, the USA and Japan wealth became more equitably distributed over time and more people participated in deciding how society was run.

This progressive arc continued, in fits and starts, up through the 1970s, at which point the “First and Second World” countries had huge middle classes whose political influence reflected their shared prosperity, in marked contrast to previous eras. If the “left” is understood to be a political force committed to greater economic and political democratization, then this three-century-long arc can be understood as the product of a succession of victories for the Left.

Then came Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman and friends.

For the past three and a half decades, the left in the Northern Hemisphere has failed utterly at presenting a vision of a more progressive and equitable society that could garner enough support to counter the neoliberal behemoth that has been rolling back the gains of the past few centuries. In retrospect, the left proved irresistible, and was ascendant in aristocratic and oligarchic societies (the success of the Latin American left of the past two decades can be understood in this light). But once a substantial, prosperous middle class emerged, the socioeconomic left has had no winning vision for moving beyond the middle-class plateau toward an even more egalitarian and less exploitative society. In the wake of this absence, neoliberalism has turned back the tide, and we now live in a society once again dominated by an extremely small elite who have astronomical wealth and a monopoly on political power. The masses work longer for less and are expected to accept their near-absolute disenfranchisement. To make matters worse, this reactionary order dominates a now-globalized economy.

This is not to say that significant progressive victories did not occur over the past four decades in the world’s wealthiest countries. They did, mostly in the struggles against racism, sexism and homophobia. But these gains have occurred at the same time as a severe trend toward the consolidation of wealth and political power in the hands of the few. In this regard, the very real persistence of racism, sexism and homophobia should come as no surprise, since the empowered elite remain overwhelmingly white, male, straight and very wealthy. Clearly, a successful 21st century left must assure full economic and political empowerment for all the people from previously marginalized social groups. As yet, no such left has emerged to challenge for power.

We remain stranded in a neoliberal world in which Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek aptly observes, “We can more easily imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In the current era, the lapdogs of the 1 percent insist there is no alternative, and the left has had no winning response.

This is where Syriza comes in.

Perhaps the best way to understand what Syriza represents is to recognize the forces aligned in opposition, nothing less than the major European and international governing institutions of contemporary globalized finance. These are the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the German government (as the dominant player in the European Union), collectively known as the “Troika.” Compared to these titans, Syriza may seem a feeble, dreamy Quixote. But the problem for the Troika is that Syriza represents the interests of not only the Greek people, but all Europeans who fear that their middle-class societies are crumbling due to neoliberal policies in which wealth inequality increases as social services decline. Many want to combat the shattering of the post-World War II European social contract that produced the greatest prosperity and general welfare in the history of the Continent.


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