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Democracy in Greece, for Now

In seven years’ time, Athens has been transformed from one of Europe’s gleaming capital cities to Europe’s version of Detroit—much of it dirty, forlorn, its storefronts abandoned, its population in decline.

Graffiti is ubiquitous. There are homeless beggars huddling on the steps of vacant buildings, and makeshift soup kitchens set up in public parks. Professionals, including qualified medical doctors, no longer able to find jobs, have emigrated by the thousands. Unemployment among youths has climbed to over 60 percent. Crime has jumped up, especially property crime. So has the suicide rate. Some neighborhoods are eerily quiet. I used to wonder how America could tolerate the utter decline of one of its major metropolises. Now I wonder the same about Europe.

But the far-left party Syriza has won the election in Greece, and in a few days, when I make my next scheduled trip to Athens, I expect to see something different. I expect to see people in Europe’s version of Detroit thinking their city might be on the road to becoming Europe’s version of Athens again, or maybe even Athens’s version of Athens.

Events in the city and the rest of Greece have exposed a tremulous fault line in European-style capitalism, and, for that matter, in European-style government. But it has also exposed the fact that radical left-wing politics in Europe are not a nostalgic fantasy. They are the wave of the present, and they might be a wave of the future.

The biggest loser in this election was PASOK, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, which was founded in 1974 (after the demise of the Junta) and which has been one of the two major parties ever since. PASOK was in power when the debt crisis hit, and it was a minority partner in the Coalition government that collapsed this December. PASOK splintered, dissident groups formed, and in Sunday’s election, PASOK won only 4.8 percent of the total vote (only thirteen seats in a Parliament of 300).

The Greek people have rejected the old socialists, the self-contradictory and corrupt neoliberal socialists of the past forty years; they have replaced them with socialists who promise to stand up against the bureaucrats who forced the Greeks to try to solve their debt problems by incarcerating themselves in an EU debtors’ prison.

If you are in debtors’ prison, you can’t work, and so you can’t raise funds to pay off your debts. If a country is in austerity, and so it reduces government expenditures, reduces the work force, and lowers wages, it can’t raise enough revenue to pay off its debts. And so, over the past few years, Greek’s debt has grown, even while the government has been spending less money and collecting more taxes per income earned.

But the Troika of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission (now led by Jean-Claude Juncker, who guided Luxembourg to prosperity by making his country into a tax haven for multinational corporations) and the European Central Bank have demanded Greece’s imprisonment. Some people think they have done so because they are stupid, mean, punitive, or delusionary. But the reason is actually that they are organs of neoliberal capitalism and its oligarchs, and are unable to act in any other capacity. In the words of the immortal Seinfeld character, if you can’t follow the rules of commercial exchange, and can’t stand properly at attention, “No soup for you.”

The mainstream press in America will probably make much of the fact that Syriza won only 36.34 percent of the popular vote, and that the fascist Golden Dawn won 6.28 percent. But the Greek Communist Party won 5.47 percent, the center-left To Potami (“The River”) won 6.05 percent, and the Democratic Socialist Party won 2.6 percent. That means that left-leaning parties together earned over 50 percent of the vote, even without the old PASOK. And Syriza has purchased a stable government by bringing a center-right party, the Independent Greeks, into coalition.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But Syriza has a mandate. It is not for neoliberalism; it is not for austerity; it is not for the protection of the oligarchy in Greece or anywhere else in the Western world. And it has its supporters throughout Europe. Spain has similar movement growing toward a majority. Both the socialist President of France, François Hollande, and his nemesis, the far-right leader Marie Le Pen, have hailed the results of the Greek election.

Don’t let the mainstream press fool you. When you hear about dangerous volatility in Greece, or anxiety in Europe, or wariness among investors and officials in Europe, you are really only hearing hiccups of indigestion: for now, just now, democracy has happened in Greece, and a lot of people just can’t stomach that.