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Greece and the disappearing middle

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ATHENS -- After a week of fruitless negotiations between the leading parties to try to form a coalition government, another election will go ahead on June 6, two months after the last on May 6. This decision is already sending shock waves through Europe's political and financial capitals.

What explains Greece's dilemma?

At the heart of the problem is the almost total repudiation of Greece's two traditional governing parties, the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy, viewed with contempt by many Greeks. Discouraged, resentful, angry, and afraid, many Greeks in the recent election either stayed home or turned to other, sometimes more extreme, parties. Will they turn out next time?

In the May 6 elections, New Democracy held on (barely) to first place, taking 19 per cent of the vote, while PASOK fell to third, with only 13 per cent. Splitting the duo, like a sharp axe through a rotten tree, was Syriza (The Coalition of the Radical Left) which took 17 per cent. That party is predicted by many to gain the largest percentage of the vote in June.

It would be easy to dismiss these events as peculiar to Greece. Indeed, much of what has been written in the West about this beautiful but troubled country these past three years has emphasized Greece's singular failings. The facts do not bear this out, however.

Certainly, Greece has its distinct problems, a high level of corruption and tax evasion, among them. But throughout much of the West, traditional centrist parties are on the run, along with the political systems that spawned them; a great delegitimization. The middle way has disintegrated, taking down the two-party systems at the centre of politics.

During the postwar years, brokerage parties of one form or another arose in various countries: Britain (Labour versus Conservatives), Germany (Social Democrats versus Christian Democrats) France (Socialists versus Gaullists in various forms), and -- of course -- Canada, where the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives once dominated.

Globalization has played a large part in this change. The freeing of financial capital has robbed the state of the resources necessary for the functioning of the welfare state and the erosion of the postwar bargain between citizens and their governments. On top of this, New Right parties in many countries, Canada included, have purposefully sought to polarize political debate, sometimes also insinuating that liberal democracy is a failure. We reap what we sow.

Of course, these middle parties often did much to aid in their own demise; one need think only of Canada's Liberals. In Greece, both New Democracy and PASOK likewise did much to earn their public rebuke, the former by its past corruption, the latter by incompetence, both parties by their support of the harsh austerity measures that are killing the country. Neither party has offered realistic hope.

But, again, the situation is not unique to Greece. In country after country, parties of the middle are in trouble. Technocrats or at least politicians speaking as technocrats rule. On the middle-right, parties have acceded to the austerity demands of bankers because they want to; on the middle-left, they do so because they have lost faith in the socialist project and have capitulated.

Indeed, the crisis is particularly acute for the traditional parties of the left. After 1945, they staked their political reputations on taming capital; the welfare state was the result. But now, traditional left-wing parties look more often as handmaidens or apologists for global finance. The fact they are often required to clean up the mess left behind by right-wing governments, as happened in Greece, is a bitter irony, but it also points out how dependent "socialist" parties have become fiscally and ideologically on furthering capitalist expansion. The result is that, in many countries, old left parties are in disrepute.

Both left and right centrist governments declare their powerlessness to act for the people. They tell their citizens to fend for themselves, that the state -- and thus elections -- are meaningless; that the hard won social rights of the early postwar years are no longer sustainable. Pensions, public health care and education, unemployment insurance, basic welfare: everything is up for grabs.

Many citizens presumably do not agree, however, and have turned away from their tepid former masters.

Thus, in Greece, what was an economic crisis has become a political crisis. And the same is true elsewhere, Spain being the other most current example. Afraid and angry, citizens throughout Europe are turning to parties of both the left and right -- sometimes the extreme right, as in Greece where the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn took seven per cent of the vote, or France where another extreme right party recently garnered 20 per cent of the vote.

The poet William Butler Yeats famously wrote, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Greece is only one window into the great unravelling.

Trevor W. Harrison is a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute. He is in Athens where he recently presented a paper on the Greek financial crisis.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2012 A10

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