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Athens' new philosopher kings

Greece has elected a government of academics and intellectuals to take over the ailing country

February 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Jan. 25, Greece’s left-wing, anti-austerity coalition Syriza won the country’s snap elections, defeating the ruling New Democracy party by a margin of nearly 9 percentage points. Despite early predictions that Syriza wouldn’t even be able to form a government, party officials have shown a confident optimism and determination for systemic change that has made it into a political and media sensation around the world.

Greece’s new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis just concluded a tour of other European capitals, where he discussed his country’s debt and future in the eurozone. Ahead of Thursday’s EU summit, his message to European leaders was clear: Greece’s debt is unsustainable, and squeezing the economy for debt repayments is a road to nowhere.

“This government isn’t justified in seeking an extension,” Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras said in his first speech to parliament on Feb. 8. “The bailout has failed … the Greek people gave a strong and clear mandate to immediately end austerity and change policies.”

EU leaders are slowly realizing that Syriza is looking not to overturn everything but to put Greece on the path to recovery. Simple steps such as a deal that would allow lenders to extend the credit line keeping Greek banks alive in a way that doesn’t keep Greece insolvent, with a shrinking economy and ever-diminishing rights for its citizens, are hardly radical.

But this did not happen overnight. In the past five dreadful years under austerity, new parties were formed, were elected and vanished more times than we care to count. It took the emergence of a new kind of politics and a new kind of politician to finally restore a sense of normality.

Syriza leaders seem to care little for formalities and are distancing themselves from the old politics. For example, Tsipras took a civic rather than a religious oath. The 40-year-old prime minister is Greece’s first openly atheist leader and the youngest person to occupy the country’s highest office in 150 years.

He has surrounded himself with people of a considerably different breed. Unlike most Greek and European politicians, his Cabinet members don’t come from the business world. A lot of them have little experience in politics and appear committed to their electoral pledges. Except for Tsipras; the governor of Attica, Rena Dourou; and the president of parliament, Zoe Constantopoulou, a big chunk of Syriza’s new leadership is made up of first-time parliamentarians from the world of academia. These are Athens’ new philosopher kings, and their emergence signals the return of the left to the mainstream in Europe.

Public intellectuals in power

The arrival of this new political class has been decades in the making. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, liberal classic economics and thought dominated European politics. The deregulation of finance and business in the 1980s brought unimaginable wealth to the beneficiaries of capitalism and their enablers in the political world.

In Britain, for example, even after the Conservatives lost to Labour in 1997, market economics dominated then–Prime Minister Tony Blair’s third-way centrist politics. Meanwhile, the European left retreated to academia, which led to vigorous analysis of the failings of neo-liberalism. It was these economists who lacked the power and access to act on their analysis that predicted the 2008 financial crisis.

Syriza’s early success should give European policymakers a reason to consider what a government of the left would look like and allow left-wing thinking to become mainstream.

Then came the time for capitalism’s critics to take back the public square. In the United Kingdom, hitherto unknown academics began making waves, especially after 2010, when Greece was forced to undertake brutal austerity measures to eliminate a dizzying deficit and reform its economy.

For example, economists such as professors Stathis Kouvelakis of King’s College in London and Kostas Lapavitsas at SOAS spoke out, predicting that Greece’s bailouts would lead nowhere and, in the case of Kouvelakis, that Syriza was party of the solution, although the party then had marginal power, with 4.6 percent of the 2009 vote. Meanwhile, in Greece, Varoufakis, then a professor at the University of Athens, was making a name for himself with his scathing criticism of Europe’s response to the Greek crisis. Slowly, the answer to the question “Where are Greece’s intellectuals?” became obvious, if understated.

Spain’s anti-austerity Indignados movement in 2011 gave these and many other economists a platform to demand an exit from a bailout package that would see Greece lose 24 percent of its gross domestic product and 25 percent of its people become unemployed. The large activist base that lifted Syriza from the margins was formed during this time.

From a platform set up in Syntagma Square, in central Athens, people such as Birkbeck University of London professor Costas Douzinas reached a wider audience for the first time. If it hadn’t been for those heady days, it seems unlikely that Syriza or today’s new kind of Greek politics would have emerged from the shadows, let alone taken off.

A number of Greek professors are part of Syriza’s new government and parliamentary team. These include Marxist economist John Millios, one of the heads of Syriza’s economic team, and criminologist Yiannis Panousis, who is bringing a radically different approach to policing to the country’s notoriously violent and unaccountable police.

Changing the landscape

We are seeing significant differences in the first few weeks of a Syriza government, both in terms of changes to political leadership and proposed policy initiatives. For example, the party is introducing two landmark proposals rejected by previous governments: granting Greek citizenship to children of migrants and recognizing civil partnership for same-sex couples. Other reforms include rolling back privileges for members of parliament and government ministers. For many Greeks, seeing their leaders move around without massive entourages of bodyguards and armored limousines has given a new reason for hope. Currently, 74 percent of Greeks support the new government — an unprecedented feat under austerity.

If the current trend continues, most Greeks will find it hard to accept the model of the blunt-faced technocrat, prevalent in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe, making a return. This is not to say that Syriza will succeed or even maintain its momentum. But Syriza’s early success should give European policymakers a reason to consider what a government of the left would look like and allow left-wing thinking to become mainstream.

The era of bold, progressive ideas restricted to the confines of the academy of bearded men talking about obscure texts produced in Italy in the 1970s is over. The idea of the public intellectual and the intellectual as politician is back. It’s a refreshing change.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe. His work has been featured in The London Review of Books, The New Statesman, Vice, Open Democracy and The Guardian, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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