By Costas Panayotakis:
The day after the Greek general election of May 6 an American colleague of mine asked me what I thought about the rise of extremist parties in my native country. What he had in mind was the rise of a number of parties on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, which the New York Times and other mainstream newspapers in the United States often lump together. This lumping together is, in fact, becoming part of the mainstream narrative regarding the rise of anti-austerity parties not only in Greece but also in France.
Commenting on the first round of the French presidential election in late April, Floyd Norris of the NYT pointed out, for example, that “in the first round of the French election, extremist parties of the right and left garnered more than 30 percent of the votes, up from about 18 percent five years ago.”[i] Also commenting on the French election, Steven Erlanger suggested that “[t]he strong showing by the left and anger on the political extremes seemed to reflect a desire for change in France after 17 years of centrist, conservative presidents.”[ii] Similarly, commenting on both the French and the Greek election, Alan Cowell and Nicholas Kulish inform us that “[t]he combative mood in France and the electoral rise of extreme challengers to the traditional titans of Greek politics in Athens left markets unsettled.”[iii]
The pattern is clear. We are supposed to believe that the rising support in Europe for candidates or parties to the left of social democracy is comparable to the rising support for neo-fascist political formations, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Golden Dawn in Greece. This is misleading in two ways: not only does it unfairly tarnish the political forces to the left of European social democracy; it also whitewashes the image of the mainstream ‘center-left’ and ‘center-right’ parties, which, we are supposed to believe, represent the respectable and reasonable bulwark against the dangers of political extremism wherever it may come from.
The reality is, of course, very different. The extremists vs the mainstream frame glosses over the fact that Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the Left front, who successfully rallied a number of different political groups to the left of the socialist candidate (and now President-elect) Francois Hollande was a passionate critic of Marine LePen, by contrast to Hollande and (especially) Sarkozy who pandered to her electorate in order to win the presidential runoff.
In the case of Greece the absurdity of this way of framing the recent election result is even more obvious to anyone familiar with the basic facts of Greek politics. On the one hand, it is true that the rise of the left as well as the extreme right is perhaps even more spectacular and sudden in Greece than it has been in France. Reflecting the complete implosion of the center left socialists and the center right conservatives who are responsible for Greece’s dire situation today, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) saw its support increase from 5% in the fall of 2009 to 17% last Sunday, thus becoming the second largest party, surpassing not only the Greek communist party, which has historically been the largest party of the Greek left, but also the socialist party, which dominated Greek political life in the last thirty years but is now collapsing as a result of the devastating impact that its austerity program has had on Greek society.
The second big winner of the recent election was Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party doubling as a criminal gang that physically attacks immigrants. This party has in the last two and a half years turned itself from an electoral non-entity to a party garnering 7% of the vote and easily clearing the 3% threshold necessary to enter the Greek parliament. Posing as a ‘protector’ of Greeks from foreign criminals and benefiting from the disgust of former supporters of the conservative and socialist parties with the austerity policies that these parties have embraced, Golden Dawn has been able to capitalize on the anger and shock that the brutal assault on the living conditions of ordinary Greeks has produced.
But the simultaneous rise of SYRIZA and Golden Dawn does not, as the extremes vs mainstream frame would suggest, make them birds of a feather. In fact, this frame glosses over the fact that it was the socialists and the conservatives that have provided legitimacy for the racism and xenophobia of the extreme right by entering a coalition a few months ago with another party of the hard right, the Orthodox Popular Rally (Laos). Laos abandoned the austerity coalition when it saw its support plummeting in favor of Golden Dawn, its anti-austerity alter ego within the Greek extreme right. Laos did not make it to the parliament in the most recent election but some of its former members have by joining the center-right conservatives who did not have a problem welcoming into their midst politicians with a violent fascist past. It also glosses over the fact that the repression, by socialists and conservatives, of popular protests has long relied on the cooperation between Greek riot police and Gold Dawn’s thugs. And it glosses over the embrace, by socialist politicians, of detention camps in which undocumented immigrants are supposed to be held in the future.
In all these instances, unlike the conservatives and socialists, SYRIZA was not on the same camp as right-wing extremists. Just as the role of socialists and conservatives in facilitating the rise of neo-Nazis is one more manifestation of their utter bankruptcy, the rise of SYRIZA is an expression of the growing realization among ordinary Greeks that the solution of their country’s deep economic and social crisis will not come through austerity but through a progressive strategy that seeks to put people above foreign creditors and banks.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy.
[i] See Floyd Norris. 2012. “In Europe, a Marriage Shows Signs of Fraying,” The New York Times, April 26, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/27/business/for-germany-austerity-elsewhere-in-europe-is-a-harder-sell.html?_r=2.
[ii] Steven Erlanger. 2012. “Hollande and Sarkozy Head to Runoff in French Race,” The New York Times, April 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/23/world/europe/french-go-to-polls-in-closely-watched-presidential-race.html?_r=1&ref=global-home.
[iii] Cowell, Alan and Nicholas Kulish. 2012. “Austerity Faces Sharper Debate After European Elections,” The New York Times, May 7, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/08/world/europe/francois-hollandes-victory-sharpens-european-austerity-debate.html?_r=1&ref=global-home.