This is a time of great confusion, fear and political disarray. People around the world, including Americans afflicted by a Trump presidency, are looking for new types of democratic strategies for social justice and basic effectiveness. The imploding neoliberal system with its veneer of democratic values is clearly inadequate in an age of globalized capital.
Fortunately, one important historical episode illuminates the political challenges we face quite vividly: the protracted struggle by the Greek left coalition party SYRIZA to renegotiate its debt with European creditors and allied governments. SYRIZA’s goal was to reconstruct a society decimated by years of austerity policies, investor looting of public assets, and social disintegration. The Troika won that epic struggle, of course, and SYRIZA, the democratically elected Greek government, accepted the draconian non-solution imposed by creditors. Creditors and European neoliberals sent a clear signal: financial capital will brutally override the democratic will of a nation.
Since the Greek experience with neoliberal coercion is arguably a taste of what is in store for the rest of the world, including the United States, it is worth looking more closely at the SYRIZA experience and what it may mean for transformational politics more generally. What is the significance of SYRIZA’s failure? What does that suggest about the deficiencies of progressive politics? What new types of approaches may be needed?
Below, I excerpt a number of passages from an excellent but lengthy interview with Andreas Karitzis, a former SYRIZA spokesman and member of its Central Committee. In his talk with freelance writer George Souvlis published in LeftEast, a political website, Karitzis offers some extremely astute insights into the Greek left’s struggles to throw off the yoke of neoliberal capitalism and debt peonage. Karitzis makes a persuasive case for building new types of social practices, political identities and institutions for “doing politics."
Karitzis nicely summarizes the basic problem:
We are now entering a transitional phase in which a new kind of despotism is emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with pre-modern modes of brutal governance alongside pure, lethal violence and wars. On the other hand, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies, and values from different cultures within our immediate reach. We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities as well as dangers. We have a duty which is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize.
But, we haven’t yet found the ways to reconfigure the “we” to really include everyone we need to fight this battle. The “we” we need cannot be squeezed into identities taken from the past – from the “end of history” era of naivety and laziness in which the only thing individuals were willing to give were singular moments of participation. Neither can the range of our duty be fully captured anymore by the traditional framing of various “anti-capitalisms”, since what we have to confront today touches existential depths regarding the construction of human societies. We must reframe who “we” are – and hence our individual political identities – in a way that coincides both with the today’s challenges and the potentialities to transcend the logic of capital. I prefer to explore a new “life-form” that will take on the responsibility of facing the deadlocks of our species, instead of reproducing political identities, mentalities and structural deadlocks that intensify them.
Karitzis takes issue with the premise that the Greek people could stop austerity and transform neoliberal politics simply by mobilizing people in the streets and winning elections. The premise of SYRIZA’s political strategy was that “the only thing that seemed to matter was who and what group would have more influence and hold the key-positions in the government and the state….The implicit premise here was that the crucial point was to be in the government taking political decisions and then, somehow, these decisions would be implemented by some purely technical state mechanisms.”
But of course, securing state power is not enough. Karitzis says he later "came to the conclusion that one major failure of the Left is that it lacks a form of governmentality which matches up with its own logic and values. We miss a form of administration that could run basic social functions in a democratic, participatory and cooperative way.”
One reason that SYRIZA failed, he believes, is that “the appointment of government officials was dictated by the outcome of the internal power games [within SYRIZA] during the previous period, and their mandate was to do whatever they could do in vague terms without having concrete action plans that would support a broader government plan. In the same vein, there weren’t any organisational "links" that would align government actions with the party functioning and the social agents willing to support and play a crucial role in a very difficult and complex conjecture.”
In short, SYRIZA assumed that a traditionally structured political party working in the conventional polity would be able to overcome elites. Ultimately, this failed, said Karitzis: “Deprived of any real tool for reshaping the battlefield, the government and the party gradually moved from fighting against financial despotism towards merely a pool of political personnel with a good reputation that could reinvigorate the neoliberal project.”
The fundamental problem is that the left is clinging to old, conventional modes of “doing politics,” said Karitzis – and these modes are incapable of overcoming the political realities of financial capital: “The non-existent reality that government and party officials were clinging on to was built on the assumption that the elites were committed to accepting the democratic mandate of an elected government."
But the power wielded by financial elites is only superficially democratic. It consists
simply in tolerating – on behalf of the elites – a situation where people without considerable economic power have access to crucial decisions. SYRIZA knew how to do politics based on the premise that the institutionalised (in the past) popular power was not exhausted. By winning the elections, the remaining institutional power – mainly in the form of state power and international respect of national sovereignty – would be enough and it would be used to stop austerity (in all versions of how that would happen, within eurozone, leaving eurozone etc).
Based on the premise that the framework within which politics is being conducted hasn’t changed significantly, SYRIZA did what the traditional way of doing politics dictates: supported social movements, built alliances, won a majority in the parliament, formed a government. We all know the results of doing politics only in this way today.
The sheer incapacities of existing “democratic structures” to deliver relief became “both hilarious and tragic,” said Karitzis. During the summer of rising public protests and SYRIZA's confrontations with the Troika, “It was obvious to me and others that we were engaged in an escalation that was not supported by anything that would make the lenders accept a compromise. The traditional, democratic means are simply outdated for doing politics in the new European despotism (although, if embedded in a different methodology of politics, they can still be very useful).”
In the end, SYRIZA leadership could not prevail and so it “shifted the central features of its assessment regarding how best to serve peoples’ needs: from ‘non-compliance with financial despotism’ to ‘stay in power.’ What happened after the agreement is just the natural outcome of this process of adjustment.”
One reason that SYRIZA could not achieve the change it wanted was because “the elites – by extracting important powers and decisions on crucial issues from the democratically structured institutions of the bourgeois state – have managed to gain control over the basic functions of society. It is up to their anti-democratic institutions to decide whether a country will have a functional banking system and sufficient liquidity to run basic services or not.”
This leads Karitzis to some cold, grim advice for the Left: “In Europe a new kind of despotism is fast emerging, combining the logic of competition and profit with pre-modern institutions and forms of power…..Twenty years after the fall of the ‘actually existing socialism’ we are experiencing the fall of the ‘actually existing liberalism,’ so to speak.”
Changing the way we do politics
So what is the way forward? Karitzis argues that we must overcome the “squeeze effect” – the ways in which “the political system is amplifying the confusion and the feeling of despair within Greek society.” This has rendered the political realm incapable of addressing “the real life conditions of the population and [is] entirely impenetrable to the peoples’ anxieties and demands.” He adds:
The negative social consequences and psychic implications caused by austerity and social decline cannot be reflected at the political level, they cannot be represented, democratically expressed, and positively transformed in such a way that contributes to social stability and cohesion. Without a minimally proper function of political representation in place, these social and psychic wounds – in the form of negative and (self-)destructive dispositions – are spread across all social networks of interpersonal relations shaking social cohesion in a deeper way.
SYRIZA was the last gatekeeper of the political functioning through its non-compliance with the financial despotism that the Troika represents. That was SYRIZA’s most precious role over the years that contained the Greek society from a deep decline. The implosion of the political system – via SYRIZA’S choice to remain in power – is the key factor in shaking social cohesion in a deeper way today.
SYRIZA’s capitulation in effect “normalized the financial coup,” said Karitzis, ratifying the premises of neoliberal politics and governmentality throughout Europe. “SYRIZA’s choice deprived the popular classes of a crucial tool after a painful defeat: the political representation of non-compliance with financial despotism. SYRIZA eliminated the chance of a tactical withdrawal, a collective process of reassembling our forces properly that could take into account the escalation of the fight provoked by elites– and forming a more effective and resilient ‘popular front’ that would build its resources to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy in the future.”
I think this may be one of the hardest challenges for the left to accept – that existing “democratic” structures, however venerated and enduring, cannot yield transformational results. “Modern societies are just waking up from the ‘end of history’ illusion [that “democratic capitalism” is the inevitable end-point of political evolution],” said Karitzis.
“The new political movements (square movements, Occupy movements, etc.) are the first glimpses of such an awakening. They are also making use of whatever exists around them, like SYRIZA, Corbyn, Sanders etc. But, we must upgrade our forms of organization and action significantly and modify radically the mentality and methodology of mobilisation. So, we are in the beginning and we must proceed decisively and effectively towards new and better adapted ways of organizing and fighting.
Karitzis bluntly concludes: “The amount of power we can reach through the traditional political practice is not enough to pave the way for the restoration of democracy and popular sovereignty in Europe. If this is our current predicament, then the urgent question is not find a ‘right answer’ but to set up a new conceptual framework of doing politics both within the state and outside of it which is relevant to the current situation.
But, we should be aware that this path requires a different mentality and qualities from the ones we used to deploying through traditional political action. If we look at the horizon of the political practice of the Left we will see that it contains movement-oriented and state-oriented approaches: organizing movements, demonstrating and fighting in the streets pushing demands to the state and voting, trying to change the balance of forces at the parliamentary level and hopefully form a government of the state. If we look closely we will notice that both of these approaches – and, thus, the entire horizon of our political practice – are mostly shaped around the traditional institutional framework of representative democracy that situates the state at the center of political power.
But we know that the elites have already shifted the center of gravity of political power towards anti-democratic institutions and repositioned the state within the institutional neoliberal European order. The elites have managed to gain total and unchecked control over the basic functions of society. In order to be in a position to pursue or implement any kind of policy one may consider as being the right one, we need to create a degree of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions. Without it we will not be able to confront the hostile actions of the elites and their willingness to inflict pain on a society that dares to defy their privilege over crucial decisions. If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining our strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground…..
Karitzis advises “shifting priorities: from political representation to building popular power.... Instead of being mainly the political representative of the popular classes in a European framework designed to be intolerant to people’s needs, we must set up an autonomous Network of Production of Economic and Social Power (NESP). A network of resilient, dynamic and interrelated circuits of co-operative productive units, alternative financial tools, local cells of self-governance, community control over infrastructure facilities, digital data, energy systems, distribution networks etc. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy necessary to defy the despotic control of the elites over society.
"Is this feasible? My hypothesis is that literally every day the human activity – both intellectual and practical – is producing experiences, know-how, criteria and methods, innovations etc. that inherently contradict the parasitic logic of profit and financial competition. Moreover, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have so many embodied capacities and values from different cultures within our reach.
"Of course we are talking about elements that may not be developed sufficiently yet. Elements that may have been nurtured in mainstream contexts and that are often functionally connected to the standard economic circuit. However, the support of their further development, their gradual absorption in an alternative, coherent paradigm governed by a different logic and values, and finally their functional articulation in alternative patterns of performing the basic functions of our societies is just a short description of the duty of a Left that has a clear, systematic and strategically wide orientation. In the worst case, we will achieve some degree of resilience; people will be more empowered to defend themselves and hold their ground. In the best case, we will be able to regain the hegemony needed: people could mobilize positively, creatively and massively, decidedly reclaiming their autonomy."
Kartizis argues that the Left reflexively “reproduces priorities, mental images, methods and organizational habits that they already know are not sufficient or adequate anymore. This means that there are implicit, deep-rooted norms that shape crucially the range of our collective actions, rhetoric, decisions and eventually strategy. It’s not important what we think, it’s what we know how to do that matters. And the latter is a product of our collective imagination, methodology and organizational principles.”
In short, we are stuck in an old framework. How can the Left (and others) expand and change the notion of “political representation”? Karitzis says we should "explore novel ways of performing the function of political representation in order to restructure existing ones and upgrade significantly the political leverage of the popular classes. For example, putting forward a project of shaping political representation as ‘commons’ could give us valuable insights towards new ways of performing political representation…..The question is what it means to do politics in order to produce popular power without presupposing the traditional democratic functioning and in order to restore it by newly transforming it."
The stakes are very high, says Karitzis, because “the domination of extreme right-wing forces in Europe will be the end-product of neoliberalism and austerity. It will be their nastiest consequence, the endgame of the decline of Europe. European countries will fight each other, not over who is going to rule the rest of the world, as in the past, but over who is going to be less miserable in a declining region. The signs of collapse of the standard economic circuit are obvious in Greece but not only there. There is a growing exclusion of people from the economic circuit — having a job or a bank account, having a ‘normal life.’ Modern society in general is in decline, and from history we know that societies in decline tend to react in order to survive."
"It is up to us to grasp this and start building networks that can perform basic social functions in a different way — one that is democratic, decentralized and based on the liberation of people’s capacities.”