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Exclusive Interview: Meet Alexis Tsipras, the Most Dangerous Man in Europe

Oligarchs are watching the rise of Greece's opposition Syriza party leader with alarm. But he may be the best, brightest hope for the people.
 
 
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Greece has become the hellish microcosm of Europe's failed austerity policies. Politicans bargain with unscrupulous financiers as formerly middle-class people sort through garbage for food and shiver beside smoke-belching wood fires. Burdened by widespread corruption, sky-high unemployment, and plans to pay off the banks at any cost to the people, the country is headed to the breaking point.

The New Democracy party, currently in power, is struggling for dominance over left-wing Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras, a bold young politician who many believe is Greece's brightest hope. His revolutionary idea? Economic policies linked to the needs of ordinary people. For those who benefit from the current disaster, this makes him a very dangerous man.

Recently, Tsipras visited the U.S. on a campaign to counter his opponents' image of him as a wild-eyed radical and to share his vision of a more equitable, human-centered economy. I caught up with Tsipras during his trip, and far from his opponents' portrait, I found him a pragmatic, thoughtful leader well-versed in economics and eager to discuss the details of a transformation that will benefit not only Greece, but the rest of us, too. The following interview was conducted via email following our meeting.

Lynn Parramore: You have been called the most dangerous man in Europe. Who is afraid of you and why?

Alexis Tsipras: It is quite evident that those who fear us try their hardest to portray us as dangerous. The parasitic, unproductive, corrupt oligarchy has every right to fear us. This is so because a Syriza government will spell the end of their merriment. It will end the subterfuge and their sinful excuses. People of good faith outside of Greece must take note that, hiding behind the façade of the fiscal derailment, which this oligarchy has caused, its representatives in government chose to tie Greece up to a series of severe austerity packages. Under the guise of "fiscal consolidation," they legislated the permanent unaccountability of big business interests and have erected a legalistic protective shield around Greece’s oligarchs.

Tragically, this template of Austerity-via-Memoranda has been used throughout the European periphery. The result is that if Greece steers a different course, this European austerity "paradigm" will collapse, in domino-like fashion, overturning the neoliberal project throughout Europe. This is the reason which we are feared not only by the Greek oligarchy, and our domestic Merkelites, but by all Merkelites around Europe, Mrs. Merkel included. Especially now that Germany is entering its pre-election period.

LP: On your trip to the U.S., what has been the most common misconception about the situation in Greece?

AT: We discovered a deep gap in the understanding of Syriza’s position regarding Greece’s and Europe’s escape from the current crisis. The Orwellian propaganda machinery set up by our domestic oligarchs has successfully demonized Syriza and projected into the United States the view of themselves as paragons of common sense and of us as the purveyors of disaster. Our task, during our visit in the United States, was to make clear that our position regarding the appropriateness of an immediate renegotiation of the terms of Greece’s loan agreement, and a cessation of the accompanying Memorandum’s austerity-driven policies, together with a multi-dimensional and activist foreign policy toward promoting Greece’s national interest, does not constitute any threat to the United States or any attempt to destabilize the region’s geopolitics.

On the contrary, our policies are complementary to international initiatives, including those of the Obama administration in the context of a broader, global macroeconomic stabilization. But moving in the direction of such a common goal requires an urgent, universal and permanent management of Europe’s debt crisis. In this vein, we have proposed a European Debt Conference, reflecting the historical precedent of the 1953 conference that led to the write-down of Germany’s debts. I am convinced that these views are increasingly well received internationally.

LP: What do you and your party, Syriza, want for Greece? How does this differ from the New Democracy party’s vision?

The conservative New Democracy party that now leads the government spent two years criticizing Greece’s loan agreement and the austerity policies that came with it. But then, it made a spectacular U-turn. The purpose of the U-turn was twofold: On the one hand, to enter government; at first without elections, by entering into a coalition government with the socialists that had been running the austerity agenda – and later, after an election in which it scored the worst percentage of the vote in its history, to lead a similar coalition.

The purpose of this New Democracy-led government, beyond restoring its politicians to power, was to function as a breaker against which popular discontent would crash, thus preventing, or postponing, the formation of a Syriza government. Very quickly, its work was done, and now, it is beyond its use-by date. Today, this government is implementing the worst, most disastrous policies that our country has seen in peacetime.

For our part, we are opposed to everlasting austerity as means for fiscal rebalancing on both pragmatic and ideological grounds. We consider democracy to be of inaliable political and cultural value. And for this reason we refuse to place it on the markets’ Procrustean bed. The subjugation of democratic process to the markets was the reason we have the crisis today and the cause of its perpetual reproduction. Based on such commonsense approaches to reality, and with no need for complex econometric models, we predicted from the outset, well before the IMF admitted to its predictive failures, that austerity-based policies would backfire and would fail by their own criteria and targets, let alone in terms of the interests of the vast majority of the Greek people.

For us, economic policy ought to be inextricably linked to social policy with a view to look after the social needs of people, of social justice, of intergenerational solidarity and of environmental balance.

Our first aim is to stop in its tracks the current policies that generate poverty, unemployment and insecurity. Our political plan is to effect alternative policies that will efficiently address the crisis and kickstart the economy by supporting the weak, creating new employment and supporting basic incomes. Greece’s reconstruction will come from a fresh developmental plan, one that is aimed at income redistribution, decent jobs and the enhancement of public goods.

LP: Why has austerity been so destructive, and what is the alternative?

AT: It is impossible to resolve a crisis by removing liquidity from a receding economy. On the contrary, contractionary policies worsen the crisis, and this has been proved beyond reasonable doubt in the case of Greece. Unemployment becomes self-reinforcing, small firms close down, the economy dies out. At the same time, the steady deterioration becomes a pretext for further cuts in pay and salaries, for the removal of workers’ rights and other social safety nets, and for the transfer of public assets to private hands. The remedy thus turns out to be far worse than the disease.

The crisis will be resolved only if there is a plan for reconstructing the economy’s productive engine from below. From the labor market and the welfare state, where wages and pensions must be supported, to small businesses that demand credit lines and access to investment funding. Instead of imposing increasing tax rates on the poor and those who simply can no longer pay, what we need is an increase in public investment. Instead of tax relief for the rich, we need a just tax system. Instead of pressing the economy in the service of bankers, we need a banking system that serves society at large, that supports development. Only in this way can the vicious cycle of austerity and recession be broken, so that the social economy begins functioning again.

LP: You’ve suggested that debt repayment must be tied to economic growth. Why is this important?

AT: There is nothing more self-evident than this. Look at the experience of Central and Latin America. A massive debt overhang is bound to choke growth prospects when the first priority is to repay an unsustainable debt by means of increasing (growth-destroying) austerity. As debt-induced austerity gets deeper and more vicious, the recession deepens and the debt rises in real terms. Default becomes certain and, while it is postponed through new loans and new debt, no one invests in the country, therefore reinforcing this vicious cycle.

If our creditors want their money back, they have to give us a chance to reverse our recession and to return to the levels of growth that are necessary to avoid a hard default. The United States thought that this was sine qua non in 1953 regarding Germany’s efforts to begin reconstructing its economy. The United States, for this reason, leaned heavily on its European allies to agree to a massive haircut of Germany’s debts. The conference that agreed to that haircut was the springboard that allowed Germany to bounce back and to become a dominant economy. We mention this because it is the only solution to the problem of debt which does not spell a wholesale social disaster.

LP: Should Greece stay in the Eurozone?

AT: Yes, because an exit from the Eurozone will not benefit Greece. Moreover, a Greek exit will be disastrous for the Eurozone itself, something that everyone knows deep down. It is not our intention to enter into a competitive devaluation contest with other European nations. It makes sense to change Europe’s institutions, to steer them away from their neoliberal agenda, from their fixations and the "logic" which brought the crisis about in the first place, and which now are perpetuating it.

Today we Europeans have a greater need than ever for a new narrative about Europe. We desperately need a new European vision that inspires and energizes. We want to rediscover the origins of the Enlightenment and of political democracy. We need to create -- and this is Syriza’s project -- an alternative, realistic political agenda for tomorrow’s democratic, social, environmentally sensible Europe. We know that such an agenda will bring us into conflict with powerful vested interests that will reliably spill over into the realm of political conflict and social struggles. Nevertheless, at a time when Europe is sinking into the crisis’ mire, this is the only escape route available to its peoples.

LP: What lessons should Americans take from the Greek crisis?

AT: The European Union is utilizing the crisis in order to rewrite the political history of Europe. The post-war design of Europe’s economies is under revision. The celebrated "European social model" which, until recently supposedly differentiated Europe from the United States, is unravelling. At the same time, Europe is not moving in the direction of America; it is, rather, moving in the wrong direction altogether. The United States, with its federal unemployment benefit system, its Medicaid and Medicare provisions, possesses checks and balances that the Eurozone does not have. And as the nation-states of Europe are being hollowed out by austerity-driven policies, while European institutions are not stepping in to make up for the lost social, welfare and rebalancing services, today’s United States is closer to the famed European social model than Europe is!

So, the most important lesson for the United States from the Greek crisis is that it is suicidal to try to deal with the federal debt by means of an austerity which attacks federal programs, such as Social Security, whose purpose is to shield America’s social economy from both recession and internal imbalances. Basic incomes, public health provisions, public education, social cohesion, environmental protection – these are the public goods that, if depleted in the context of fiscal consolidation, will bite your people back, and in the end, jeopardize not only America’s shared prosperity but also its capacity to repay its debts. It is for this utterly pragmatic reason that we must defend our public goods, both in Europe and in America.

Americans do not have the luxury of thinking: “These things are happening in Greece. Why should we care?” If we do not emancipate our societies on both sides of the Atlantic from speculative finance and from the notion that the crisis must be paid by the weaker members of our society, America and Europe alike will continue to live under the crisis’ cloud. But if we recognize the regenerative power of democracy, of politics, of our peoples, we will be in a position to change the world for the better.

LP: What fundamental shift in thinking do you believe is necessary to create a more prosperous future for Greece and the entire global economy?

AT: We must defeat the dominant paradigm according to which development comes when wages fall, when labor becomes as elastic as rubber, when profits are left untaxed. We must also defeat, once and for all, the myth of the trickle-down effect. The evidence is irrefutable: the trickle-down idea was at best an illusion and at worst a fraud. We must rethink development from the perspective of real social needs. Development must be reacquainted with the notion of a life lived in dignity, with respect for the environment, with social protection for the weak. If 100 powerful conglomerates disagree, it is their right to do so. But it is not their right to impose their opinion on the rest of humanity.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet's New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.