Syriza’s victory. This is going to end badly for somebody

Last weekend the anti-establishment, far-left party Syriza won the general election in Greece, and did better than most people forecast. Under Greece’s unique electoral system, which gives the largest party a bonus of 50 seats, they almost won an overall majority. Guardian journalists jumped for joy. For them it showed that their hated austerity policies can be challenged and beaten. Elsewhere there are quite a few calming voices; things can be worked out, seemed to be attitude. Both views are naïve.

First, in fairness, a couple of positive things need to be said about Syriza. The Greeks have been badly let down by their political establishment, represented in two political parties: New Democracy and Pasok. And yet it is these establishment parties that have been entrusted with sorting the mess out so far. Syriza are coming to government with fresh eyes and should be in a better position to clean things up and distribute the burden more fairly. They should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt for now.

And one of their central positions, that Greece should be forgiven much of its debt, is perfectly coherent. We need more caveat emptor from buyers of sovereign debt. Repayment of debts is not a sacred duty that comes before basic human needs. A more liberal attitude to debt is one of the ways in which progress can be made in unfamiliar economic environment we find ourselves in. There are, of course, trying consequences to such liberality: it will become more difficult to borrow.

That I think is were the more moderate commentators start. But difficulties with Syriza’s position start come thick and fast after that. This is what Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras said immediately after his victory:

Greece is leaving behind catastrophic austerity, it is leaving behind the fear and the autocracy, it is leaving behind five years of humiliation and pain. Your mandate is undoubtedly cancelling the bailouts of austerity and destruction. The troika for Greece is the thing of the past.

This is rage against austerity: the need to cut back government expenditure and raise taxes in response to the economic crisis. And this is what those Guardian writers like. The left wing narrative, applied to countries as diverse as Britain, France and Greece, runs something like this. In the 1980s a malign conventional wisdom infected the governments of the western world: neoliberalism. This sought to reduce the scope of government and regulation, and in its place rely on free markets.  All this did was to enrich an elite at everybody else’s expense. And it ended in banking madness that led to economic collapse in 2008. And yet these neoliberals remain in charge! They have used the crisis as a reason to pursue austerity policies. But these policies are an evident failure: everywhere they have been applied growth has been stagnant. When will the world come to its senses, reverse austerity and let growth return?

Syriza’s victory will test this narrative to destruction. The first problem is the debt renegotiation. Sovereign debt is about 175% of Greek national income. This sounds unsustainable. Surely all Syriza is doing is asking for common sense to be applied so that everybody can move on? But all is not what it seems. The size of that debt is a bit of an accounting fiction. Debtors have already conceded a lot on both interest rates and repayment schedules; the debt is not anything like as burdensome as the headline figure suggests.

And there are powerful reasons for preserving that accounting fiction. First, outright debt forgiveness is unpopular right across northern Europe – and not just Germany. Conceding ground on it will nourish the far right from France to Finland. And of course, it will undermine mainstream governments in Europe’s periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Spain and even Italy. The original Greek deal, put together with the hated Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF) was an elegant compromise designed to balance these destructive forces. The best the Greek government can hope for is a bit more of the same fudge. Allowing Greece to drop out of the Euro and the EU would be very destabilising for the rest of Europe; but it is hardly clear that conceding a lot of ground to “renegotiation” (a euphemism I have always hated) is any better.

And then there are those austerity policies on which the Troika have insisted. These are often portrayed as economic nonsense by the left, because of their effect on aggregate demand, which leads to a sort of doom loop. That is indeed a problem, but their fundamental aim is to put the Greek economy on a sustainable footing. Government expenditure and taxation were way out of line with each other; Greek industry was internationally uncompetitive. Unless these problems are tackled no solution is credible, which means that nobody will lend the Greek government money. Read the more thoughtful “Keynesian” critics and you will suggest that stimulus is focused on initiatives that do not undermine sustainability – infrastructure investment is a favourite. And that, as I have pointed out before, is not as easy as it appears.

Now the Syriza leaders are not stupid, even if some of those Guardian commentators are. Elements of their programme address the issue of sustainability: improving tax collection and targeting the wealthy elite more effectively. But many of their promises seem to go in the absolute opposite direction – reinstating government jobs and raising salaries; reversing changes to employment protection.

Now it is possible to sketch out a fudged way forward; changing the balance of Greece’s reforms, allowing a little more short-term slack, and a little more debt rescheduling.  But how is this “leaving behind catastrophic austerity”? It is impossible for Syriza to meet the expectations it has raised. The Vox Pops broadcast by the BBC over the last week or so suggest that the Greek voters themselves largely understand this – which is one reason to think that maybe such an outcome is what is in store. Mr Tsipras will simply follow the trail blazed by France’s Francois Hollande. In that event it will be the far left in other countries that will be left empty handed.

But a Greek exit from the Eurozone, and the EU, is the other likely outcome. If that happens Greece will indeed have banished the Troika and liberated itself from its debt burden. But the austerity that the Greek populace have suffered to date will look tame.

There is very little middle ground. This is not going to be an easy year. Behind that we can see a flaw in the leftist narrative. The economic policies of the 1990s and 2000s did not just benefit a wealthy elite in developed countries; benefits were spread right across society, including an expansion of government programmes. But these advances were built on sand. Lacklustre growth since 2008 is shaped by fundamental economic forces. It is the new normal. We had better get used to it.