Greece may be bigger news in Europe than it is here, but it’s big news. A lot of the future is being decided right now. One of the best articles about the larger political meaning of it that I’ve seen is Christopher Caldwell’s "The Flag-Waving Greek Left" in the Weekly Standard. The general theme is that this will have brought to front-and-center a change that everyone probably noticed as early as Thatcher’s 1990 ouster: that conservatives are no longer natural sovereigntists and lefists are. Or, perhaps more accurately, the old left/right divide is breaking down as they find common cause in opposition to internationalism. The political theme for the next century is probably one of how necessary the national community is, and so nationalist Syriza has more in common with its nominally right-wing populist coalition partner than you think (and with the Front National, AfD, UKIP, etc. for that matter).
I want to take issue with a bit of it, though.
Greece has a long tradition of revolutionary parties winding up the equivalent of old ones, under changed names. A lot of people have said that Tsipras will happily submit to the Memorandum as long is it can be called something like the ‘Development Plan for Greece.’
Followed soon after by
The pooh-poohers of Syriza have been proved wrong so far. In its first days in power, Syriza has behaved like a radical party.
Except that it really hasn’t. It’s true that Tsirpas has done some symbolically confrontational things, like spending part of his first day in office paying tribute to victims of the Nazi occupation (probably as a coy way of reminding everyone that Greece gave Germany a loan in the 1940s that has never been paid back), or refusing to negotiate through the Troika (which was expiring in February anyway, and which most of Europe agrees has outlived its usefulness). He was elected by a really angry public, and so some amount of paying the piper is necessary. When you look to substantive things he’s done, though – and granted, it’s only the first week-and-change in office, so it’s impossible to say anything with certainty – it looks acceptably moderate. He didn’t, for example, take offered aid from Russia. His finance minister has outright agreed to stop talking about creditors taking further haircuts on Greece’s debt obligations. As for the raising of the minimum wage – it’s been raised to € 683/month, still the lowest in Europe. These aren’t class warfare levels of wealth redistribution. Greece further remains publicly committed to running a budgetary surplus in the range of 1-2% not counting debt obligations. It’s true that debt obligations are a jaw-dropping 4.5% of GDP, but it’s worth pointing out that this puts it in company with Germany, which ran a primary surplus of 0.1% and an overall deficit of 2.3% in 2014. Syriza certainly talks like radicals, but so far at least the reality is shaping up more like PASOK’s not-really-that-scary-as-it-turned-out 1981 win, when everyone initially thought Greece was going over to the Soviet camp. What happened instead is what seems to be happening now: a somewhat fairer version of business-as-usual with some necessary cultural healing (in PASOK’s case by rehabilitating the left-wing partisans in the Greek Civil War, in Syriza’s by restoring national pride) thrown in the mix. Greece has lost about a quarter of its GDP since the crisis started and now faces something like a 70% evasion rate on taxes. It’s a textbook demand crisis, and Syriza’s move to reinstate a lot of goverment jobs and subsidize (or outright cover) people’s utility bills, while maybe not the most efficient tools in the chest, are textbook responses.
All told, Tsirpas looks like someone Europe can do business with. And so they should do business with him. Because whatever else your take on the Greek crisis, it should be abundantly clear that the people who are paying for it on the ground in Greece are not the people who caused it. Most of those people – Greece’s connected elite – have stopped paying their taxes and/or fled the country.
Perhaps what Caldwell means by Syriza "behav[ing] like a radical party" is simply that it’s the first post-dictatorship Greek government that’s actually something like representative. Greece since 1974 – or actually really since the 1950s – has mostly been a choice between two corrupt Big Families. Do you want your mafia worker-oriented (Papandreou) or manager-oriented (Karamanlis)? So sure, it’s "radical" in the sense that it’s not PASOK or New Democracy. But even that thin sense of the word doesn’t stretch very far, since PASOK and New Democracy aren’t even PASOK and New Democracy anymore (PASOK, in particular, barely exists these days after it decisively jettisoned its Papadreou baggage).
It’s true that Syriza has a lot of radical members. It’s only a legitimate party as of this year, having previously been an informal coalition of nearly every crazy left-wing group you can imagine, save the KKE itself (the Communists). Just having it in power at all is a little scary. But that’s all the more reason to give credit where it’s due. So far, Syriza hasn’t colored outside the lines at all. Nothing it’s seriously proposed has been the kind of thing that a center-left party in one of Europe’s more stable democracies wouldn’t do under these circumstances. And more importantly, it’s not seriously threatening to leave the Euro, or to even do anything that would cause the Euro to kick it out. "Radical" will show up if and when Tsirpas goes home empty-handed from his negotiations in France; we haven’t seen it yet.
It really does look like this is another in Greece’s "long tradition of revolutionary parties winding up the equivalent of old ones, under changed names." If it’s not, it at least looks content to act like one until the crisis is resolved. After that, who really cares?