Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

SYRIZA: A guide for Brits who hope.

Greece solidarity demonstration, London, 11 Feb 2015
Imagine a small political party, polling only a few percent in elections and made up of assortment of colourful characters from the progressive fringe of politics, seemingly unable to agree on lunch let alone policy. Imagine then that this party suddenly becomes the only anti-austerity party in town and starts to build up an irresistible level of support from those disillusioned by mainstream politics. It stands in a General Election and becomes the government.

Over here the Green Party in England and Wales must be dreaming of such a result, but this really is the story of SYRIZA in Greece, the only country in the world where the citizens voluntarily attend pro-government rallies. But what does it mean for those of us in Blighty hoping that the recent surge in support for the Greens mean Natalie Bennett will be our Alex Tsipras?

It's all Greek to me

Syntagma Square, Athens, 11 Feb 2015
The first thing to say about politics in the Hellenic Republic is, it's complicated. I've been trying to follow it for twenty five years ago and I'm as confused as ever. The second thing to say is when we speak of a war between Left and Right in the UK we are speaking metaphorically. In Greece it's literal.

The story could begin in 1924 with the formation of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), or in 1936 when the fascist Metaxas, a charming man who liked strapping opponents to blocks of ice, suspended parliament, but instead we'll start with the end of the Second World War

Athens 1944, Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In Britain 1945 saw a victory at the ballot box for the centre-left Labour Party, but Greece it was the far left guerrillas of the ELAS who appeared to have the upper hand. However before they could form a government Churchill rearmed the Nazi Security Battalions with British guns and turned them on their fellow countrymen.

The Greek Civil War that followed was a confused and bloody business. Often as not it saw neighbouring villages settling scores with only a pretence to political motives, but for the Greek Left it was a catharsis. Defeated and then brutally suppressed in the 'democratic' post-war Hellenic Republic, the Left spent the fifties either in hiding or exiled to island gulags. Even the hint of a return to power in the late sixties was enough to provoke a military coup and worse repression.

Athens Polytechnic 1973, tanks getting ready to attack students.
When the youth of Greece eventually rebelled in the seventies it wasn't, like over here, against the imagined inequity of their parents, but the very real oppression of the Colonels. Their 1973 uprising was a bloody failure, but democracy did return a year later in the form of the centre-right New Democracy Party.

The KKE became legal again, but this didn't actually help them very much as, in the time honoured tradition of the Left, it was time for a split. Events in Paris and Prague in the spring of 1968 had shaken communist parties across the continent. The British Communist Party had almost ceased to exist by this point, but elsewhere the Eurocommunists were ousting the old guard. Embracing democracy they thrust themselves to the forefront of the liberation struggles of the decade.

It was this split that would ultimately lead to the Eurocommunists joining SYRIZA, but for now it was the pro-Moscow grouping that was the larger faction. Partly because of the historical wartime struggle against the Nazis, partly because of the contemporary struggle against military rule and no doubt partly because Greeks are just permanently contrary. The main effect of the in-fighting though was to leave the popularist Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) effectively unchallenged on the left of Greek politics.

When the seventies turned into the eighties Britain and Greece went in very different directions. Here the selfish hedonism of the sixties turned into the selfish monetarism of the eighties, but in Greece the youth who'd rebelled by listening to Greek bands playing Western rock music under the dictatorship helped to elect the country's first post-war left wing government. Andreas Papandreo's PASOK swept into office with the rallying cry "Change". A National Health Service was created, former Communist guerrillas were given pensions, the exiles returned and the generation excluded from society by The Colonels was rewarded with easy jobs in the public sector.

Athens Polytechnic 1995, riot police get ready to attack students
The 1990s in Greece saw a new wave of student radicalism and anarchists, who I've not really had time to mention yet, made most of the running. Murray Bookchin used to read Aristotle and Greek anarchists read Bookchin, so in a sense Social Ecology was coming home.

In Britain we occupied trees to stop roads, in Greece they occupied schools and universities. The Greek police were once again their usual liberal selves and there was a non-negligable body count in these actions. It was also not uncommon to see lorry loads of machine gun wielding coppers parked up in anarchist parts of Athens. It all came to a head in 1995 when 3000 people occupied the Polytechnic. (Just to confuse Brits who remember polytechnics as cut price higher education, the Athens Polytechnic is one of their top universities). The police moved in, the media, who often ended up being attacked by anarchists at demos and so weren't minded to give them good press, had a field day and when it was all over the movement was effectively dead.

Anti-war graffiti on NATO vehicles, Greece 1999
In 1999 the brief war between NATO and Serbia gave the Left another cause. Meanwhile the Battle of Seattle had opened a new front against Capitalism, and as the Eurocommunists and other far left groups prepared for the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa they decided to decided to form something they initially called Space for Dialogue for the Unity and Common Action of the Left, but which became SYRIZA three years later.

The PASOK government  meanwhile, having employed Goldman Sachs to cook the books, had been allowed to join the Eurozone. The ruse appeared to be paying off and the country was on the up for most of the noughties. Then the Credit Crunch hit, and the Eurozone economies crashed. The centre-right New Democracy Party was in power by this time. They were unsurprisingly booted out in 2009 when George (son of Andreas) Papandreo's PASOK ran against under the slogan "there is money". Unfortunately nobody had told him there wasn't.

In Britain the centre-left had been in power when the Credit Crunch hit but left the austerity to the opposition, in Greece it was the other way round. In Britain the damage was serious. In Greece it was fatal. In the 2015 elections PASOK came seventh, behind both the far-right fascists of the Golden Dawn and the ultra-left communists of the KKE.

Unlike in Britain, the far left was still alive and well. The Hellenic Republic had its equivalent of Occupy in the Squares Movement, but the Left had shown its power three years early, in December 2008. When the Greek police shot dead Andreas Grigoropoulos, a fifteen year old boy out celebrating his name day, the resulting riots were the worst since the fall of the Colonels. Just like in 1974 students were central to the revolt, but this time the reasons were more obscure.

Protest in front of Greek parliament, May 2011
Greece had problems of corruption, youth unemployment and inequality, but at that time no worse than many other European countries. The anger of its young people seemed to be directed at the Neoliberal world generally rather than the Hellenic Republic in particular. It was if, as before, Greece was a decade behind the times and it was fighting the Battle of Seattle all over again.

The KKE though had nothing to do with this. For them nothing short of a Revolution would do and they denounced the Squares Movement as nothing less than a "mechanism of the ruling class". When you see Occupy as too reactionary you are seriously left! This retreat from reality opened the door for SYRIZA who started their march to power with the anti-austerity campaigners in Syntagma Square.

Christodoulos Xeros
If you think with the KKE we're reached the edge of Greek progressive politics, you'd be wrong. If you want further proof that the Hellenic Republic really is stuck in a seventies time warp there are the terrorists. Yes, some on the Greek Left really are still trying to bomb their way to a Revolution forty years after our own Angry Brigade stopped blowing up fashion boutiques and went off to do more useful things. Indeed, recently rearrested terrorist Christodoulos Xeros even looks like he should be fronting his own Prog. Rock band. To understand Greek politics you have to realise that for some these people do almost have pop star status. When the New Democracy HQ was bombed during the recent election campaign, SYRIZA supporters celebrated online.

SYRIZA then has sprung from a very different political landscape to our Green Party. Here, the
Second World War united the country not split it apart and in the sixties our Left was moderated by being in power not radicalised by oppression, and I guess that's nothing to complain about.

SYRIZA may be a new party, but the continuity of the Greek Left is contained within it. When Tsipras lays a wreath at a memorial to Greeks killed by the Nazis it links the present crisis to a historical struggle whilst Caroline Lucas visiting a wind farm doesn't.

Manolis Glezos, still fighting at 91
This continuity is illustrated by the remarkable Manolis Glezos. As a teenager he snuck onto the Acropolis via a cave sacred to the ancient god Pan and tore down the Swastika flying over the Parthenon. As part of the Greek resistance he once nearly blew up Winston Churchill.  The post-war government sentenced him to death but he was reprieved. He was elected to parliament whilst in prison and released after going on hunger strike. He was imprisoned again under the Colonels then on release he became a PASOK MEP. He now sits in the Greek parliament for SYRIZA when he's not protesting on the streets. So much for becoming more right wing as you get older.

SYRIZA obviously owes its election to government to the scale of the disaster that overtook Greece after the Credit Crunch. Britain may not have lost 25% of its GDP since 2008, nor do we have to bring your own drugs when we go to hospital, but the same factors that have pushed mainstream voters into the arms for the far left are playing out here; the descent of the underclass into utter poverty, the collapse of the Middle Class into working poor, the destruction of the public sector and the flight of the lucky 1% who can afford it out of the big cities, and into their gilded cages of private schools and hospitals. It's all our happening here too, just a little slower.

But whilst SYRIZA may well be the response to this in Greece, but we mustn't jump the gun in assuming it's the solution. Tsipras sometimes sounds like he's the next of the Papandreo dynasty. "Change" or "there is money" could have been his mottos this time around, and the reason PASOK has been wiped out is because the riposte to both was "there wasn't". SYRIZA's Green credentials are also rather thin. A belated change of policy to Eldorado mine project and some warm words on Climate Change and ecosocialism, but that's it.

Despite that they are clearly better than the alternatives though. However if we think a British SYRIZA is inevitable we may be disappointed. The Greek Left isn't back so much as it never went away. In the UK it was buried years ago.

Britain, Europe and indeed the world need an alternative to rapacious capitalism, unsustainable consumerism and unjust austerity, but ultimately liberation is something each country must build for itself, not a franchise we can buy into.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Fracking and Climate Change

This is important.

When your twelve year old son tells you he's thinking of not having children because he's worried about Climate Change, then you know this is serious.

Now I want grandchildren, but more than that I want them to enjoy the same summers, winters, snow and sunshine that I enjoyed when I was young. I don't want to see Newsround explaining to them why Bangladesh is drowning, Ethiopia is starving and the Amazon is burning.

So days like the rally coming up on 7 March are very important, but we need to stay focussed. We
can't just be climate warriors for one day. We must welcome everyone who is sincere, but we must not let the day become one in which climate criminals can cover themselves in Greenwash by pretending to support us.

We must be able to say that if you don't support fossil fuel divestment, or a ban on tar sands or if you are not opposed to fracking or Arctic oil then stay at home, because passive support is not enough, we need action.

At Frack Free Greater Manchester we took one small part of the problem of fossil fuels, shale gas, and then we took one small part of the problem of shale gas, the test drill at Barton Moss, and we opposed it with everything we had.

Now shale gas is a problem for Climate Change, but sometimes it gets put forward as a solution. It's true, when you burn it in a power station fracked gas produces half the CO2 of coal. But by the time fracking is fully up and running, which even the optimists in the industry say won't be before the end of the next decade, there may not be any coal being used in power stations for the gas to replace.

Also, a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is not nearly good enough. Solar and wind produce only 6% and 2% of the CO2 of coal over their life cycles, and that is the scale of reduction we need to be talking about.(IPCC 2014)

But it is also far from clear that fracked gas actually provides any improvement at all on coal.

Methane is a far more potent Greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Even if you take into account its shorter lifespan in the atmosphere it is still considered thirty times more potent than CO2. So if just 3% of the fracked gas leaks out before being burnt then it is no better than coal. We don't know what the leakage rates are, except that independent assessments put the figure a lot higher than industry funded reports, and most are a lot more than 3%.

There are lots more problems with fracking, but two which relate specifically to Climate Change. The first is carbon budgets. According to the daddy of all climate scientists, James Hansen, the world can safely use 500 gigatons of use carbon, and we've already burnt our way through 370 GtC.  We can only afford to burn another 130 GtC without wrecking the climate. That is also the amount of carbon believed to be available in Coal Bed Methane alone, there’s more in shale gas, yet more in shale oil and so on.
Secondly there is the question of timing. As I’ve said, even the optimists don’t think we’ll have full scale production before 2030. A gas fired power station lasts for twenty years. So if we build a new generation of fossil fuel power stations it will be 2050 before we are replacing them with renewable. By that time the world may already have seen two degrees of warming. The ice caps will be gone and we could be in a situation where even if we don’t release another gram of carbon ourselves, natural feedbacks will ensure greenhouse gas emissions continue without us.

And so we took on IGas at Barton Moss. People camped out through the worst weather imaginable. People stood in front of the lorries every day for four months. The media ignored us. The police lied about us. Then people of Manchester decided to vote with their feet and come out for the biggest anti-fracking gathering yet seen in the UK. IGas left town and haven't come back.

We've not won yet, but we're doing well. And this is what we all need to do. We need to take this huge problem and break it down into bite sized chunks and tackle them one at a time. Pick your fight and go for it with all your heart and soul. In that way we will win.

And we need to win, because I really want grandchildren.