Kyrkos, exit stage left

Illustration by Manos Symeonakos

“We don’t seem to have a political class that understands, on any level, what it’s like to face unemployment,” veteran left-wing film director Ken Loach told The Guardian newspaper in an interview last week.

Although his comment was a swipe at the British government in the wake of the recent riots in the UK, the description could easily apply to Greek politicians, or indeed many MPs and ministers throughout Europe. Today’s politicians rarely gravitate toward public service after having gained experience and respect working outside the political arena. Instead, it’s a career option and, like any other career, those involved pursue their goals from a young age. Their path to power rarely weaves its way through the troubled back streets of the economy where initiative, courage and compassion are needed.

Apart from unemployment, they’ve also not experienced genuine political conflict, the need to have core beliefs and the conviction to stand by these beliefs. Leonidas Kyrkos, the veteran Greek leftist leader who died on Sunday, was familiar with these elements of old-school politics.

Kyrkos was one of the select members of a rare political breed, garnering respect from all sides of the spectrum, but he was also one of the last members of a dying species that had was familiar with having its political will tested. Kyrkos spent five years in jail for his beliefs during the military dictatorship, founded and departed several parties, and risked his reputation by agreeing to become part of an ill-fated coalition government with the conservatives of New Democracy in 1989.

The Coalition of the Left and Progress (Synaspismos), which Kyrkos formed with Communist Party leader Harilaos Florakis, gained just over 13 percent of the vote in the June 1989 elections (roughly three times what the party’s successor receives now) and went through an existential struggle over whether to cooperate with ND or not. Faced with a series of scandals that were at risk of being swept under the carpet unless Parliament intervened, the leftists took the plunge. It’s a decision that tarnished Kyrkos’s legacy in the eyes of many PASOK voters, who refer to the period as “dirty 89,” and some within his own party.

Elections were held again in October 1989. Kyrkos’s coalition lost 120,000 votes and New Democracy went on to form a government on its own. As churlish as it would be to single this out as Kyrkos’s defining moment in politics, it was a precursor to the ideological blurring that occurred in Greece and around Europe in the ensuing years.

Within a decade, it would become much easier for the parties of the left and right to cohabit because the theoretical chasm that separated them was filled in by the rubble from Communism’s collapse. Parties once termed “socialist” or “social democrat” gradually blended into one with the conservatives and Christian democrats. In some ways, Kyrkos — a passionate but moderate leftist — was a pioneer. Circumstances forced him to be one of the first who would try to marry those reluctant bedfellows: vision and pragmatism.

In the years that followed, the relationship between these two vital political elements often became an abusive one in which pragmatism, aided by its good friends greed and selfishness, would regularly beat vision until it cowered in a corner. Yet, ask Greeks in their 30s or 40s and most will remember Kyrkos as one of the last representatives of an era of visionary politics rather than one of the first messengers heralding the age of the politics of convenience, consensus and comfort.

They are likely to tell you about how they were enchanted by his oratory and inspired by his ideas. In fact, if there is anything that Kyrkos’s passing should highlight, it is how Greece and Europe’s genuine left has retreated into irrelevance, how it has forgotten that it was meant to be a standard bearer for fairness and the engine room of hope.

The financial crisis that originated in the USA and the debt crisis that ensued in Europe provided the left with a broad platform to launch itself into political relevance for the 21st century. So far, it has failed. The center-left remains fused with the center-right and, apart from Germany, where Die Linke has proved a tenacious competitor, most of Europe’s genuine left is wilting, unable to find a way to connect with the millions of disgruntled voters out there.

Despite the fact that unemployment is rising, that young people are facing diminishing opportunities and the gap between the rich and poor is growing, the left has not found a way to speak the language of the concerned and disaffected or to give them a viable way out of this dead-end. In fact, the left has been caught dallying by the very representatives of the system it should be trying to improve. Emboldened by US billionaire Warren Buffett’s recent plea to Washington to stop “coddling” the super-rich and make them pay more tax, the wealthy in France, Italy and Germany have begun asking to make a bigger contribution.

The German group, Vermogende fur eine Vermogensabgabe (The Wealthy for a Capital Levy) claimed this week that Germany could raise 100 billion euros if the richest paid a 5 percent wealth tax for two years. Yet, this appears to be an argument that the left is either too scared to make or is incapable of making without turning it into a stale “them” versus “us” debate that makes society’s divisions wider.

Writing for Bloomberg this week, George Magnus, a senior economic adviser at UBS, argues that policymakers need to pay more attention to the writings of Karl Marx to understand the current crisis. “The sooner they recognize we’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis of capitalism, the better equipped they will be to manage a way out of it,” he writes before addressing issues such as the conflict between capital and labor and the paradox of over-production and under-consumption.

It is an indictment of the left that a banker is able to invoke the spirit of Marx and then make realistic proposals for exiting the crisis, such as putting employment creation at the center of economic policy and lightening the debt burden on households, when the politicians that camp on this ideological ground seem unable to put together convincing proposals.

As Kyrkos passes into the collective memory, perhaps the most important legacy that he leaves is the message for tomorrow’s politicians. Without strong beliefs and the courage to defend them, they have little chance of unseating the current crop of MPs and ministers, for whom unemployment will continue to be a foreign concept.

Nick Malkoutzis

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