Alexis Benos is a Professor in Public Health at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University, and was an electoral candidate for the left wing coalition Syriza in Thessaloniki. Alexis is a member of Syriza’s local coordinating committee and also a member of the party’s central committee. He was interviewed by John Lister.
How do you see Syriza as an organization?
The name itself means a coalition of the radical left, and we have taken a very important step since 2004, when Syriza was first founded. It was formed just before an election campaign, as an electoral coalition.
What’s interesting is that within it we have all the possible branches of the historical left in Greece and internationally: we have Trotskyists and we have Stalinists – Maoists and Eurocommunists – and sections from the left of social democracy, and eco-socialists as well: it’s really a big spectrum of the left.
Of course there is another important part of the left which is missing, which is the Communist Party (KKE), an older pro-Soviet Communist Party which still uses the same old rhetoric and still has the same attitude towards politics. There is also another missing component which is a section of the extraparliamentary left formed mainly of a split from the Communist Party: they are collaborating with us, and I know a number of them recognize that they have to come with us and work with us.
The crisis is becoming deeper and deeper, Syriza is becoming bigger and bigger, and we have to become much more serious as we look at the reality and the need for unity perspective. A union of the left is a real possibility: and we need to make it happen.
How do you see the tensions between the different currents within Syriza? Are they becoming sharper, or are people beginning to see the need to work together?
Of course there are problems: in last three years we have come very close to a split. Part of the organization – and it’s interesting that is actually a Trotskyist element within Syriza, along with the Communist Organization, which is Maoist – tried to form another front in opposition to the main party – without actually leaving Syriza. We call that opportunism.
A couple of years ago the social democratic minority faction of Synaspismos (the biggest party of our coalition) abandoned both party and coalition and founded a new party called Democratic Left, which is now participating in the tripartite neoliberal government (both with the Conservative-New Democracy and Socialist-PASOK parties).
In SYRIZA meanwhile there was a lot of friction and a lot of the older organizations wanted to keep their organizational integrity, but the reality is that because of the crisis in the last two years we are all getting more serious.
So now within Syriza there is a unanimity, a declared consensus that from September will be a transition period in which we will have local assemblies all over the country which are going to elect their representatives to a Congress of a new party, which will be one party – of course with trends inside it which will be recognized, but one party.
This is not up for discussion today: it’s positive because the reality is forcing us to forget the old ways of working, the old passions and splits of the traditional left. Now we have to be more responsible: we have to recognize the need to work together.
You are a public health official and a health activist: and one of your concerns is clearly to tackle the problems that are developing in the Greek health service under the impact of the austerity. Tell us about how you’re discussing the issues that would need to be addressed if Syriza wins the next election and becomes the government.
As you know, this year in the most recent elections we lost by only 2%. It was very close. We really were close to being in government today. So the discussion is getting really serious now. If we win a majority in the parliament, of course our main strategy recognizes that without the mass movement outside, a majority in Parliament on its own is not enough as a basis to make radical change.
But we’re also discussing much more technically because we will have to solve real problems that will arise. The big issue is the big pharmaceutical industry. Under the austerity rules in the last two years the government has been increasing the amount the patients have to pay out of pocket to cover the cost of their drugs and treatment.
In our view as part of our philosophy, health is a right, access to services is a right, and access to necessary medicines and drugs is a right that we must uphold. But of course we also know that in the current system there is a big overconsumption and significant corruption involved in the marketplace for the big pharmaceutical companies.
So if we became a government tomorrow there are big problems for us to solve: we would want to relieve the burden on people who need to be able to get a hold of the drugs they need to keep them alive every day, whether for diabetes of HIV but on the other hand we face an industry which is making really massive profits from our healthcare system. We have to control the market for pharmaceuticals. This is our long-term vision but also our duty.
We will need immediate solutions that we can apply at once, but we will also need to make sure that these are consistent with the wider vision of the way we want a health care system to run in the interests of people and not of big business: is not just a question of paying the pharmaceutical bills, but of reshaping the system.
Right across Europe, and I know also in the UK we have very negative examples of the ways in which social democratic parties in government, because they had no vision for society turn out to be the best servants of big business. They are national parties, which relate to their national ruling class: but also lack any strategy or alternative vision to overrule the big corporations or to mobilize any kind of mass organization to challenge them. That’s why they so easily succumbed to neoliberal views.
You’ve always been clear that the answer is not simply to try to build an alternative in Greece, but the you need to make a much wider appeal.
This is a very important point. All the neoliberal propaganda in Europe and in Greece has been that we are the Greek phenomenon, lazy Greeks and so on, but of course this is not the case. It is a Europe wide attack on working people being mounted by big capital.
There is no solution without an international solution, not just in Greece, but in any country. Even if we win control of the Greek government, and have the very best policies you ever dreamed, we are not going to be able to succeed. Big capital will make a war against us, it’s obvious. There will use a stock market to devalue the currency and they will build a much bigger and deeper crisis even than the one we have today. And then their strategy we can assume will be to argue that this is the crisis that the leftists have created for the country and to press for a right wing so-called national government to put the country back on its feet.
To overcome that we need an international movement, not only for Greece. Before the elections we were preparing the ground so that if we did win the elections we would immediately make an appeal, an international call especially for Europeans but not exclusively to Europe, to organize solidarity tourism and have a lot of people coming to the country in order to assist in buttressing the economy while big capital attempted to destabilize it.
A solidarity movement will be very important for Greece, but is not only that: we also need to build an awareness that we want and need working people in every country to fight their government, and oppose any moves to destabilize Greece, all to increase the austerity.
We need people to fight the government because if they don’t, the government will fight them. If people band together against their governments, the governments of Europe will band together against the people.
What’s worrying us is that we appear to be out in front. We are not proud to be in the most advanced crisis and the most advanced situation for the left. We know that Syriza is the most mature and developed expression at the present time of the left in Europe, and the closest to winning real power. Rather than being proud we are afraid that there is no parallel movement in the whole of Europe. There are good parties and good comrades, but the movement towards unity of purpose, recognition of the need for serious action is nowhere near as advanced elsewhere.
There are some movements to give us some hope, for example the movements in Spain. But the question is how is this grassroots movement going to be expressed in political form? The movement continues to go up and down but there is no real consistent large-scale organization capable of winning elections and mobilizing large forces.
It’s important to realize the positive experience that we have made. We’ve been working all these years as activists, supporting movements such as the occupy the plazas movement and all kinds of ecological movements and so on. When they moved we were there. And it’s important to discuss from a European perspective that we recognized from the beginning that we should not try to take these movements over, to control or claim that they were somehow ‘ours’.
What happened, and it’s really quite amazing, is that the government – ministers and all the media that support them – accused Syriza of responsibility for whatever was happening in Greece. So we were blamed for the occupy movement, and for the ‘don’t pay’ movement which has also been very important in challenging the austerity, refusing to pay extra taxes and other charges. Even when we haven’t been involved, the media propaganda effectively helped us by making us look much bigger and more active than we really were.
But because we didn’t try to take over, we have developed very sound and well-established relationships with these movements. They are genuinely supporting Syriza, but they are not part of Syriza. This is producing a good dynamic. Because we need to build a much stronger and bigger mass movement.
So what’s your relationship like with the trade unions?
This is a big and very important issue which is also a European issue and not simply a problem that we have. All of the unions in Europe have over the years become more or less completely bureaucratized and corrupted. And this has led them into the role of effectively backing the neoliberal policies of social democracy.
At the beginning of the occupy movement in Greece we even had some clashes in which some unions went in to help the occupy movement, told we don’t want you bureaucrats, clear off. That was partly good, partly bad.
But the challenge is now to politicize the trade union activists and the trade unions, not to dismiss them or write them off, but to work to ensure that they play a constructive role.
We are by no means there yet: the leaderships of the unions are still linked in with neoliberal politicians. But there are interesting developments. There are grassroots movements emerging in the unions. The basis of the new union movement.
But of course the main problem now is not the unions, it’s the unemployed. You know we have nearly 25% unemployment: up to 50% of those aged under 25 are unemployed.
Where then is the base of Syriza in the current context?
We have 35-40% support amongst those aged under 45, but when you look at the ages from 50 and upwards then it starts to get really bad. Which is interesting because historically the left has tended not to relate so strongly to younger people.
But what was also very interesting for us is that for the first time the vote for Syriza was clearly a class vote. The lower and middle classes voted for Syriza and the others voted for all the parties of the system which includes the social Democrats.
But there’s also a different issue amongst the students. The movement is slipping in this sector. The students are overwhelmed by the perspective of unemployment, and as they come up to the end of their studies they really anxious as to what they going to do, and tend to be really out of any movement.
In the last week before the elections we faced a really tremendous onslaught against us in the media: even David Cameron had a go at us. All of the European leaders made statements that Greece was at the edge of destruction if people voted for Syriza.
The most obvious impact of this campaign was that it did terrorize people, and it whipped up an anti-Communist style of movement. So it raises big issues about how we can reach out to these wider layers of people who were affected in this way and deterred from voting for us, but who really should be with us.
You have a big campaign going on around the issue of multinational corporations opening up a very destructive gold-mining operation that threatens to trash one of the main tourist areas of Greece. This obviously has lessons about the dependent situation of the Greek government, and the continuous demands and shortsighted policies of neoliberalism. Can you talk a bit about it?
Yes a consortium headed up by a big Canadian-based multinational corporation, but also involving a Greek capitalist who owns one of the major TV stations along with a construction business, has chosen this period of crisis, and mass unemployment, to argue that they want to invest heavily in gold-mining in Greece, and claiming it will mean thousands of jobs could be created.
They want to dig up a whole mountain in Halkidiki, where we know already that the concentration of gold is just 0. 1 gram per ton of rock. So that means just in order to get just one gram of gold, you have to dig 1000 tons of rock. To get a kilogram you need to move a mountain. The threatened environmental destruction is truly massive.
Here in Halkidiki, there is a very developed tourist industry – in my view a bit too developed – but it keeps a lot of people in work, and the landscape is very beautiful. The mining will destroy a very lovely part of the world, but also one which generates considerable profit, so even in capitalist terms the plan seems to be a complete nonsense. Environmentally it’s also important to recognize that the forest on the mountainsides is a major resource, historic forest that is never being destroyed by fire or by other activity.
The chemicals that they will use for extracting the gold from the rock include cyanide and other highly dangerous products. There already bitter experiences all over the world including the United States but also Romania where these chemicals have caused massive destruction. But on top of that there will be massive amounts of dust thrown into the air. And although they are claiming that will keep the toxic chemicals carefully, this is an earthquake zone, and nobody can be sure that any of this will be done safely.
They are all set to create a major disaster – and that’s why there has been a very big movement to challenge the proposals. When we started a lot of villages in the area had accepted the argument that they might benefit from extra jobs: but now they have understood what the implications are, and now we have a very powerful resistance movement. But of course the people driving the plan am now trying to divide the movement. They took 150 young people from the villages around and gave them €200 a month to work on security. These people wound up in clashes with their own families.
Only three days ago we had very big clashes there, there was a big rally up in the mountains, in the forest, with large numbers of riot police deployed. The police action, firing tear gas resulted in starting fires in the forest. The demonstrators stopped protesting and immediately went to put the fires out.
The movement is strong, but the deal has been signed. However it’s not too late to imagine it might be stopped. They have not yet begun any really serious environmental destruction. On the point of law it’s also interesting because two months ago the campaigners won a ruling in the Court to stop the mining.
But immediately after that came a visit to Greece by the troika of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Union: they visited the highest court in Greece, and managed to get the previous ruling overturned. The new ruling said that the level of unemployment in Greece meant that it is now a top priority to create jobs, and that therefore they had changed the previous ruling to permit the money to go ahead. But it’s obvious that once they’ve obtained whatever profit they can obtain, the mining company will simply leave behind Greece and the desert and the irreversible damage that that operations will create: any possible short-term contribution to reducing unemployment will soon be wiped out.
This is another issue in which we need European wide action: it’s clear that we need as much pressure as possible put to bear on the Greek government and on the mining company to prevent a disaster taking shape.
There are moves to setup a global alliance against extractive mining, and it’s clear that we have similar issues all over the world – Latin America, Africa, Asia. Everywhere we have the same drive for profit at the expense of people and the environment. And everywhere we have the same arguments that in the current crisis it’s important to create jobs and so on. From which I conclude that sadly the capitalists are much more internationalist and coordinated in their approach than we are!
One issue we have not touched upon is the rise of the far right in Greece and the way in which Syriza is responding.
As we know from history a period of economic and social crisis creates the ideal breeding ground for the far right and for fascists. This is what we’re also seeing in Greece now. Even at the beginning of the occupying movement we could see a dangerous streak of nationalism – blaming bad Germans and Angela Merkel and so on, and I think we played quite a positive role being there, and questioning and challenging these views and not just leaving this movement to be taken over by the right.
We did a lot to challenge the idea that this was a national issue and to make the argument that it was an international question and the international alliances would be vital, but it’s clear from the last elections that the fascists are now a force, with 7% of the vote. And they are really fascists, we call them the dogs of the system.
It’s very important to recognize that they also have some popularity amongst the youth – and of course as we might expect the most desperate sections of youth. So this is the most negative new development
Of course one aspect of this is that the rise of the far right grows out of the destruction of the previous consensus between the two main parties the right wing and the social Democrats.
In Greece we have a history of struggle against the Nazis and the collective memory of antifascist struggles, but also a long history in which the Greeks have been immigrants in other countries in Europe, in the USA, Australia and around the world.
Especially in the generation of our fathers many Greeks were immigrants in Germany. So as the fascists wage a campaign now against immigrants we respond by pointing out that the Greeks themselves in many countries are even now immigrants: so do they want their fellow fascists in Germany to kill Greeks in the way they attack and kill Africans and others in Greece?
There is a big movement building to challenge the fascists, and Syriza once again is part of that movement. Every year we have a big anti-racist festival: three days of festivities, with food and theatre and music. There are discussions on racism, the involvement of women, and many other dimensions.
We regard this as very important in strengthening and building the movement that we need if we are to challenge for government.
There are a lot of warnings from history, and a lot of parallels between what might happen to Syriza in government and what happened in Chile in the 1970s. That is why we are having discussions and seminars on issues including the Paris Commune (1871) the Pinochet coup in Chile, lessons of the Greek civil war and also the Spanish civil war.
We are working to understand history better and what happened then, not because history is exactly reproduced, but because we have to have all the experience to foresee and avoid problems in the present.